There have been a number of studies recently that have found plastic in the digestive tracts of a wide array of marine animals. Further, a huge swirling mass of plastics, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is floating in the north Pacific. Plastics in the ocean are a serious problem, as hey can disrupt food webs when animals eat them by mistake.
There have been suggestions that we should start addressing this problem by placing plastic collectors in the Garbage Patch, in order to get rid of it. But, according to researchers form Imperial College, London, that isn’t the most effective way to do it. Instead, they suggest placing those collectors near the coastlines where plastic enters the ocean in the first place.
Doing so would reduce the amount of plastics in the ocean by about 31%, as opposed to only 17% in the Patch. One of the big problems is when microplastics mingle with phytoplankton, which some small animals will eat by mistake. The researchers found that the overlap between microplastics and phytoplankton would be reduced by about 42% with collectors near coasts, but only 14% if we place them in the Patch.
Part of the reason he numbers are so different is that the plastic first entering the ocean has lots of opportunities to cause ecological harm, especially as it moves through active ecosystems near the coasts. Meanwhile, the plastic in the Garbage Patch has largely done it’s damage. There is far less marine life out in the middle of the ocean, as most ecosystems are built upon plant life found in shallower water.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is pretty terrible, of course, but it’s damage done. By preventing plastics from getting into the ocean in the first place, we can do a lot more to preserve marine ecosystems than cleaning up the mess we’ve already made. Not that we shouldn’t do both, of course.