An article titled, “The Fundamental Links Between Climate Change and Marine Plastic Pollution”, describes the interactive relationship between climate change and marine plastic pollution. The article’s authors claim that climate change and marine plastic pollution are linked in three ways: 1) the production of plastic relies on fossil fuel extraction and is thus a greenhouse gas contributor 2) climate and weather influence the distribution and spread of plastic pollution across environments 3) marine ecosystems and species are vulnerable to plastic pollution and climate change.

Does Plastic Cause Climate Change?

The rise in plastic demand is likely due to its reputation as an inexpensive and lightweight material that has a wide range of uses. Plastic is used for packaging, electronics, toys, utensils, safety gear, and infrastructure. Even so, plastics and microplastics release potent greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, methane, and ethylene throughout their lifecycles, from production to after-use. Greenhouse gases from plastic materials must therefore contribute to ocean heating and climate change.

When the natural gas and oil for plastics are extracted from underground sources, methane leaks sometimes occur. During methane leaks, stored methane flows freely into the surrounding air or water. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that is far more effective at absorbing and reradiating heat energy than carbon dioxide.

After extraction, raw natural gas and crude oil are subjected to rounds of intense heat to be refined and eventually manufactured into usable products. This heating releases carbon dioxide gas and other chemical pollutants.

Even after plastics have been used and discarded, they continue to slowly discharge methane and ethylene when exposed to solar radiation.

How Does Plastic Move Around the World?

The movement of plastics between environments is influenced by weather and climate. Plastics are circulated by the flow of water and wind. Extreme weather, like floods and windy storms, can move plastics from one system to another. For example, flooding riverine systems can transport plastics into the ocean, while tropical storms from oceans can push plastics onto terrestrial surfaces.

How Does Plastic Affect Marine Ecosystems?

Plastics continue to impact the ecosystems long after they have been dumped into oceans. Ingesting plastic can lower the survival odds of certain marine organisms. In some cases, marine animals become entangled by plastic products or have their feeding and breathing pathways obstructed. On top of that, plastic potentially facilitates species migrations because plastic debris attracts encrusting organisms and microbial communities. Therefore both climate change and plastic pollution can contribute to species movement between ocean regions. Increased species mobility can bring about invasive species risks.

Some suspension feeders and benthic organisms likely mistake microplastic particles for food because the plastic particles are roughly the same size as feeding matter, such as plankton. Ingestion of plastic debris can be lethal or sub-lethal for marine species. Sub-lethal effects can be impaired reproduction ability, loss of sensitivity, the inability to escape from predators, loss of mobility, decreased growth, and body conditions.

Toxic chemicals like flame retardants, metal ions, and antibiotics are incorporated in some plastics and can also be ingested by wildlife. Fish that have been exposed to these chemicals are unsafe for human consumption as contaminated seafood sources can create adverse health effects on people.

Conclusion Drawing

The review, “The Fundamental Links Between Climate Change and Marine Plastic Pollution”, concludes that ocean plastics and climate change are inherently interactive. Plastics rely heavily on fossil fuels during production and continue to emit greenhouse gases long after they have been disposed of; which contributes to ocean heating and climate change. Climate change, on the other hand, is associated with extreme weather and floods which exacerbate the spread of plastics in and between land, freshwater, and marine environments. Both plastic pollution and climate change pose threats to marine ecosystems and species.

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