Polymers in the Pacific

In addition to nuclear waste, there are other very long lived forms of human detritus accumulating in the world. Most pervasive among those may be plastics. Virtually non-existent before the Second World War, they are now produced in staggering quantities. So far, none of those artificial polymers have broken down chemically; instead, they just break into smaller and smaller pieces, float down rivers to the sea, and end up in places like the North Pacific Gyre. It is also discussed on MetaFilter.

As with vulcanized rubber, these materials will endure in the world until microorganisms evolve the ability to metabolize them. Apparently, when plants first evolved lignin and cellulose, bacteria were unable to digest them. Until that changed, wood would have been as enduring as the plastic wrap currently swirling and collecting persistent organic pollutants in the world’s oceanic gyres, quite probably for millions of years.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

17 thoughts on “Polymers in the Pacific”

  1. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it’s only a pollutant if it affects in the long or short run the ability of the earth to sustain human life. There is no perspective of evaluation other than the human one. (there is no good before man)

  2. Hi,

    I feel as though you ought write something about the ontario referendum that you have the right to vote in tommorow. The national papers seem to be opposed to MMP, but I’m all for a change.

  3. Tristan,

    In one sense, the issue isn’t that it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that plastics will endure for millions of years. It is simply notable and humbling that something we invented during the last 50 years will exist long into geological time. The Holocene Epoch – during which all of human civilization has taken place – extends only 11,500 years. The last plastic bag you carried groceries in will almost certainly exist for more than 100 times that span of time.

    Also, I would dispute that all aesthetic considerations become moot in the absence of humans. People can have preferences that extend beyond themselves (for instance, about their funeral services). In a similar sense, I think people can prefer one post-human future to another, and that one not choked with wildlife harming refuse would be appealing to most people.

  4. I spoke with Caitlin about the history of thinking the future will be awful. She says people have always believed the future was going to be terrible, but they didn’t believe it would be terrible because the humans would ruin it until the Victorian gothic period – in other words, until the Industrial revolution. Strange how correct that seems, eh?

  5. Apparently, when plants first evolved lignin and cellulose, bacteria were unable to digest them. Until that changed, wood would have been as enduring as…plastic wrap

    That is really hard to imagine. Were the first forests like the mounds of diapers in landfills today – choking all the life under them?

  6. isn’t that why there is petrified wood? the microorganisms couldn’t digest it. Otherwise it would just have rotten away wouldn’t it?

  7. Hilary,

    Petrified wood is actually a type of fossil. The original materials in the wood have been replaced by minerals. In the right circumstances, this can happen to wood today. It is possible that before microbial digestion of wood, this would have occurred more frequently.

  8. Floating toxic plastic garbage island twice the size of Texas

    By Mark Frauenfelder

    kosmik ray says: “A little-known island continent of floating toxic plastic garbage, TWICE the size of Texas, is growing in the pacific between Califormnia and Hawaii. Officially known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, until it can be taxed, U.S. officials will continue to ignore it. I heard of it once many years ago, but it apparently has been growing tenfold each decade since the 1950’s, and now consists of 80% plastic. It has also been called Gilligan’s Island, from the trashy TV sitcom that won’t go away.”

    The enormous stew of trash – which consists of 80 percent plastics and weighs some 3.5 million tons, say oceanographers – floats where few people ever travel, in a no-man’s land between San Francisco and Hawaii.

    The patch has been growing, along with ocean debris worldwide, tenfold every decade since the 1950s, said Chris Parry, public education program manager with the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco.

  9. Respirometry tests work perfectly for newspapers and banana peels. (Newspapers take two to five months to biodegrade in a compost heap; banana peels take several days.) But when scientists test generic plastic bags, nothing happens—there’s no CO2 production and no decomposition. Why? The most common type of plastic shopping bag—the kind you get at supermarkets—is made of polyethylene, a man-made polymer that microorganisms don’t recognize as food.

  10. Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch Worries Researchers

    NeverVotedBush writes with an update to a story we discussed early this month about an enormous accumulation of garbage and plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles off the coast of California. The team of scientists has now returned from their expedition to examine the area and say they “found much more debris than they expected.” The team will start running tests on the samples they retrieved, and they are preparing to visit another section of ocean they suspect will be full of trash. “The Scripps team hopes the samples they gathered during the trip nail down answers to questions of the trash’s environmental impact. Does eating plastic poison plankton? Is the ecosystem in trouble when new sea creatures hitchhike on the side of a water bottle? Plastics have entangled birds and turned up in the bellies of fish, and one paper cited by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates 100,000 marine mammals die trash-related deaths each year. The scientists hope their data gives clues as to the density and extent of marine debris, especially since the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may have company in the Southern Hemisphere, where scientists say the gyre is four times bigger. ‘We’re afraid at what we’re going to find in the South Gyre, but we’ve got to go there,’ said Tony Haymet, director of the Scripps Institution.”

  11. Plastic rubbish blights Atlantic Ocean
    By Victoria Gill
    Science reporter, BBC News, Portland

    Scientists have discovered an area of the North Atlantic Ocean where plastic debris accumulates.

    The region is said to compare with the well-documented “great Pacific garbage patch”.

    Karen Lavender Law of the Sea Education Association told the BBC that the issue of plastics had been “largely ignored” in the Atlantic.

    She announced the findings of a two-decade-long study at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Portland, US.

    The work is the conclusion of the longest and most extensive record of plastic marine debris in any ocean basin.

    Scientists and students from the SEA collected plastic and marine debris in fine mesh nets that were towed behind a research vessel.

    The nets dragged along were half-in and half-out of the water, picking up debris and small marine organisms from the sea surface.

    The researchers carried out 6,100 tows in areas of the Caribbean and the North Atlantic – off the coast of the US. More than half of these expeditions revealed floating pieces of plastic on the water surface.

  12. Scientists Find Bacteria That Can Eat Plastic Bottles

    Scientists previously thought plastic couldn’t be biodegradable

    Scientists in Japan have discovered a form of bacteria that can digest the plastic in disposable plastic water bottles, raising hopes it could be used to dispose of some of the 311 million tons of plastic produced annually worldwide.

    But a team of researchers in Japan have identified a species of bacteria that is able to degrade plastic using two key enzymes that break down PET and use it to grow– essentially, the bacteria can “eat” plastic. The discovery was published in Science on Friday.

  13. A bacterium that degrades and assimilates poly(ethylene terephthalate)

    Bacteria isolated from outside a bottle-recycling facility can break down and metabolize plastic. The proliferation of plastics in consumer products, from bottles to clothing, has resulted in the release of countless tons of plastics into the environment. Yoshida et al. show how the biodegradation of plastics by specialized bacteria could be a viable bioremediation strategy (see the Perspective by Bornscheuer). The new species, Ideonella sakaiensis, breaks down the plastic by using two enzymes to hydrolyze PET and a primary reaction intermediate, eventually yielding basic building blocks for growth.

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