When we litter, we’re littering the ocean floor

| May 21, 2014

That bottle you just tossed aside? It turns out that you may as well have gift-wrapped it and mailed it to a fish. A new report details the dramatic extent to which our garbage permeates the deepest reaches of the ocean. The report is alarming, and it joins an increasing body of research indicating that the garbage we discard not only doesn’t stay put, but makes its way farther than we ever imagined.

Christopher Pham of the University of Portugal led the research. Pham and his team conducted a meta-analysis of 32 surveys conducted between 1999 and 2011. The surveys contained data from underwater sites throughout the northeast Atlantic Ocean, the Arctic Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea.


The stuff you toss goes farther than you might think. From Cherrie Mio Rhodes.

Some of the survey sites were near shorelines, and though garbage anywhere in the ocean is disturbing, we might be more likely to expect garbage to turn up in the locations with the closest proximity to land.

The really alarming results? Sites located “thousands of kilometers from shore” with depths of up to 4,500 meters, also revealed human garbage. It didn’t seem to matter whether the site was on a continental shelf, an ocean ridge, a submarine canyon, or a deep basin.

According to Pham’s research, after reviewing data from the 32 sites, “not one site was free from garbage.”

In fact, the very deepest areas “had the highest densities of garbage.” Pham wasn’t surprised by the findings, but lack of surprise doesn’t mitigate the concern.

Most of us have heard of the massive swirling pile of floating garbage known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s twice the size of Texas and growing rapidly every day, and it has generated substantial media attention. However, this new research underscores the idea that this floating garbage might be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. While plastic floats initially, Pham’s team notes that, “about 70 percent of it eventually sinks to the seafloor.”

While the surface garbage is more visible and thus generates more attention, the sunken garbage is no less of a threat.

So what’s the impact? Experts are still assessing the damage, but it doesn’t look good. We do know that “some organisms eat the trash, thinking it’s food,” while “others — especially turtles, marine mammals and birds — get entangled in it, and sometimes die.”

Next time you’re deciding whether to properly recycle a bottle or simply toss it aside, you might want to think about where that bottle will end up.

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Category: Pollution

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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