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Resources on Plastics in the Environment (June 2022): Marine Harms: Plastics in Aquatic Environments

By Margaret Manion

Marine Harms: Plastics in Aquatic Environments

Oceans serve as a vital source of food and oxygen for the planet. They cover approximately 71 percent of Earth’s surface and contain 96.5 percent of the water on the planet. Earth’s water is constantly changing form and moving to different locations, influenced by precipitation, evaporation, wind currents, tides, and ocean gyres. Plastic pollution in the ocean was first reported during the 1970s, a time when there was far less plastic existing in the world than at present. Being downstream from nearly every land location, oceans receive much of the plastic waste generated on land. Impact of Plastic Waste on the Marine Biota, edited by Mohd. Shahnawaz, Manisha Sangale, Zhu Daochen, and Avinash Ade, provides detail on how various marine ecosystems are affected by plastic waste and suggests ways of minimizing the harm to the multitude of participating organisms, chiefly by reducing the amount of plastic produced. Meanwhile contributors to the collection Hazardous Chemicals Associated with Plastics in the Marine Environment, edited by Hideshige Takada and Hrissi Karapanagioti, describe in particular how, in addition to harm from the endemic plasticizers they contain, plastics can serve as vectors to carry such hazardous chemicals into the food chain as many marine organisms ingest plastic items and thus can facilitate the transfer and accumulation of harmful chemicals in human populations. Microplastic Contamination in Aquatic Environments editor Eddy Zeng surveys recent research on aquatic fouling from microplastics and nanoplastics, while contributors to the volume describe various sampling and measurement techniques. Together, such laboratory-based collections from top-tier scientific publishers provide a highly technical view of the distribution and biological harms of nanoscale plastic waste in oceans and freshwater environments.

Amateur environmentalists may prefer to begin by consulting the effective graphic introduction offered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through its website. On the site, the webpage “A Guide to Plastic in the Ocean” ( effectively bridges the gap between commonly used throwaway items and broken-down nanowaste in only three easily digested images. From there, such readers may explore the issue of aquatic pollution through the recent spate of more popular works from nonprofit publishers and popular science activist-journalists, as notably represented by Marcus Eriksen’s personal account of his expedition, on a wind-driven raft built from discarded plastic bottles, to view the plastic trash swirling in the eddies of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In Junk Raft (already mentioned above), Eriksen combines accessible scientific explanations about everything from the typology and composition of plastic materials to the workings of subtropical oceanic gyres with a vivid autobiographical memoir of his journey to a career in public environmental education. Erica Cirino, too, combines stories of her adventure in and about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, including the mechanics of trawling for samples and freeing trapped wildlife, with investigative reporting on laboratory science and anti-petrochemical activism in Thicker than Water (mentioned above; see also below).