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Adventure Science Center Blog

Science Educators and guest authors exploring our world and the science and technology that connects us.

 

 

OCEANS OF PLASTIC by Patrick King II, Planetarium Educator

One of the biggest threats to our ocean ecosystems is plastic waste. Each year, thousands of pounds of single-use cups, straws, bags and other debris make their way into our waterways. We know this trash causes serious issues for our marine life, but just how much and what can you do about it?

How much plastic is in the ocean?

 

There is anywhere from 93 to 236 thousand metric tons of plastic floating in our oceans, of which 269,000 tons floats on the surface. That’s the same weight as 680 blue whales! The broad range of the estimate stems from the fact that there are huge regions of the ocean that have yet to be sampled for debris. 

Where does all this waste come from?

Plastic touches many aspects of our daily lives. Most of it consists of everyday, single or limited-use items such as bottles, toothbrushes, straws or bags. Did you know that all plastic ever created still exists today? Most plastics are non-biodegradable—and although many plastics are recyclable, 91% of plastics wind up in the landfill or our world’s waterways and oceans. When left out in the elements, plastic gets broken down into fragments smaller than your fingernail called microplastics. As you can imagine, these small shards are easy for our finned friends to accidentally consume, injuring and even killing them.

Where does all the plastic go?

Plastics can be found in all parts of the ocean but there are some areas in the ocean where they appear in a higher concentrations. You may have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which floats halfway between Hawaii and California, and is more than double the size of Texas. What you may not know is that this is just one of five major garbage patches drifting in our seas. These large concentrations of plastics occur in subtropical ocean currents, also called gyres, which are circular rotations of water within a basin that’s is driven by wind. The constant circulation has a tendency to draw water towards the center of the gyre—similar to the rotation of a toilet—which, in turn, pulls garbage and anything else towards the middle causing it to break down into smaller and smaller pieces.

How does plastic impact animals?

We know that plastic debris entangles and slowly kills millions of sea creatures; that hundreds of species mistake plastics for their natural food, ingesting toxicants that cause liver and stomach abnormalities in fish and birds, often choking them to death.
Charles J. Moore - NY Times (2014)

It’s common knowledge that plastics in the ocean are harmful to almost all forms of marine life.  Many fish are known to mistake microplastics for food. These fish are then eaten by larger fish, which are consumed by humans. Since the 1950’s there has been an increasing amount of synthetic chemicals being found in our own bodies thanks to this chain of contamination.

What can be done to help fix the issue?

Since the 1980’s, several laws and treaties have been passed restricting the dumping of plastics into the oceans. Plastics manufacturers are also investigating ways to create "degradable" plastics. Biodegradable plastics are made with cornstarch, so bacteria and other organisms eat away at the plastic, breaking it up into smaller pieces. That said “degradable” plastics come with their own caveats and still doesn’t solve the problem of the plastics already out there. For that, some great minds have come up incredible inventions and projects like...

What can you do?

You can do your part by making sure you avoid single-use plastics with some helpful tips from http://www.greeneducationfoundation.org/!

  1. Stop using plastic straws, even in restaurants. If a straw is a must, purchase a reusable stainless steel or glass straw!
  2. Use a reusable produce bag. A single plastic bag can take 1,000 years to degrade. Purchase or make your own reusable produce bag and be sure to wash them often!
  3. Give up gum. Gum is made of a synthetic rubber, aka plastic.
  4. Buy boxes instead of bottles. Often, products like laundry detergent come in cardboard which is more easily recycled than plastic.
  5. Purchase food, like cereal, pasta, and rice from bulk bins and fill a reusable bag or container. You save money and unnecessary packaging.
  6. Reuse containers for storing leftovers or shopping in bulk.
  7. Use a reusable bottle or mug for your beverages, even when ordering from a to-go shop
  8. Bring your own container for take-out or your restaurant doggy-bag since many restaurants use styrofoam.
  9. More tips...

Patrick King II
Planetarium Educator

Sources:
A global inventory of small floating plastic debris. Erik van Sebille, Chris Wilcox Laurent Lebreton, Nikolai Maximenko, Britta Denise Hardesty, Jan A van Franeker, Marcus Eriksen, David Siegel, Francois Galgani and Kara Lavender Law. Published 8 December 2015 • © 2015 IOP Publishing Ltd

Ocean Trash: 5.25 Trillion Pieces and Counting, but Big Questions Remain.  Laura Parker, National Geographic.

Choking the Oceans with Plastic, NY Times.

Posted by Anna Leigh Goolsby at 10:52 AM
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