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Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

analysis, Waste Products, Plastics, Oceans and Seas, Environmental Pollutants, statistics & numerical data, Conservation of Natural Resources

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      Abstract

      One of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet is the accumulation and fragmentation of plastics. Within just a few decades since mass production of plastic products commenced in the 1950s, plastic debris has accumulated in terrestrial environments, in the open ocean, on shorelines of even the most remote islands and in the deep sea. Annual clean-up operations, costing millions of pounds sterling, are now organized in many countries and on every continent. Here we document global plastics production and the accumulation of plastic waste. While plastics typically constitute approximately 10 per cent of discarded waste, they represent a much greater proportion of the debris accumulating on shorelines. Mega- and macro-plastics have accumulated in the highest densities in the Northern Hemisphere, adjacent to urban centres, in enclosed seas and at water convergences (fronts). We report lower densities on remote island shores, on the continental shelf seabed and the lowest densities (but still a documented presence) in the deep sea and Southern Ocean. The longevity of plastic is estimated to be hundreds to thousands of years, but is likely to be far longer in deep sea and non-surface polar environments. Plastic debris poses considerable threat by choking and starving wildlife, distributing non-native and potentially harmful organisms, absorbing toxic chemicals and degrading to micro-plastics that may subsequently be ingested. Well-established annual surveys on coasts and at sea have shown that trends in mega- and macro-plastic accumulation rates are no longer uniformly increasing: rather stable, increasing and decreasing trends have all been reported. The average size of plastic particles in the environment seems to be decreasing, and the abundance and global distribution of micro-plastic fragments have increased over the last few decades. However, the environmental consequences of such microscopic debris are still poorly understood.

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      Most cited references 31

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      The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review.

      The deleterious effects of plastic debris on the marine environment were reviewed by bringing together most of the literature published so far on the topic. A large number of marine species is known to be harmed and/or killed by plastic debris, which could jeopardize their survival, especially since many are already endangered by other forms of anthropogenic activities. Marine animals are mostly affected through entanglement in and ingestion of plastic litter. Other less known threats include the use of plastic debris by "invader" species and the absorption of polychlorinated biphenyls from ingested plastics. Less conspicuous forms, such as plastic pellets and "scrubbers" are also hazardous. To address the problem of plastic debris in the oceans is a difficult task, and a variety of approaches are urgently required. Some of the ways to mitigate the problem are discussed.
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        Lost at sea: where is all the plastic?

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          Environmental implications of plastic debris in marine settings--entanglement, ingestion, smothering, hangers-on, hitch-hiking and alien invasions.

           Clare Gregory (2009)
          Over the past five or six decades, contamination and pollution of the world's enclosed seas, coastal waters and the wider open oceans by plastics and other synthetic, non-biodegradable materials (generally known as 'marine debris') has been an ever-increasing phenomenon. The sources of these polluting materials are both land- and marine-based, their origins may be local or distant, and the environmental consequences are many and varied. The more widely recognized problems are typically associated with entanglement, ingestion, suffocation and general debilitation, and are often related to stranding events and public perception. Among the less frequently recognized and recorded problems are global hazards to shipping, fisheries and other maritime activities. Today, there are rapidly developing research interests in the biota attracted to freely floating (i.e. pelagic) marine debris, commonly known as 'hangers-on and hitch-hikers' as well as material sinking to the sea floor despite being buoyant. Dispersal of aggressive alien and invasive species by these mechanisms leads one to reflect on the possibilities that ensuing invasions could endanger sensitive, or at-risk coastal environments (both marine and terrestrial) far from their native habitats.
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            Author and article information

            Journal
            10.1098/rstb.2008.0205
            2873009
            19528051
            ScienceOpen disciplines:
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