Plastic production has increased dramatically since it became widely popular as a cheap material. Plastic could be molded and made into almost anything—and, best of all, it was single-use. In the 1960s, plastic production was around 15 million tons, whereas today it has grown to 335 million tons of new plastic every year. However, out of all the plastic ever created, less than 10% of it has actually been recycled. Because plastic is a petroleum and natural gas product, humans are not only throwing away valuable natural resources but also contributing to climate change.
To alter the physical properties of plastic to make it more elastic or harder, manufacturers add plasticizers to the polymer resin. In addition to the plasticizers, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) may be added to the product. POPs consist of a variety of chemicals, such as herbicides, nonylphenol, Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), carcinogenic polyvinyl chloride (PVC), hexachlorobenzene and more. Prolonged leaching from storm drains and littering within the ecosystem increases POPs within the ecosystem. Plastic is hydrophobic, meaning it has a fear of water, and POPs are also hydrophobic. Once both are in the marine environment, they can bind molecularly together, making the plastic more toxic than before.
Organisms that consume plastic particles have the potential to store the chemicals in their bodies and transfer the chemicals indirectly when ingested, resulting in bioaccumulation, a process where the chemicals stored in the prey’s body will be passed to a predator as they are eaten in the food chain. Endocrine disruption, cancer, and stress for organisms are just a few potential effects of ingesting microplastics.
Prevailing wind patterns and ocean currents contribute much of the debris that ends up on Washington’s coast. This waste is affecting many organisms. A recent study found that 12% of glaucous-winged gulls (Larus glaucesens) ingested plastic pollution from Washington State waters. At the University of Puget Sound, a team conducted a study to analyze two shorebird species, the Northern Fulmar and Sooty Shearwater. A total of 90% of Northern Fulmar samples and 50% of Sooty Shearwaters had plastic in their guts.
In another study conducted by the University of Puget Sound, a team analyzed benthic and forage fish and their relationship to plastic. All forage fish species sampled were found to be ingesting plastic, but the frequency of occurrence ranged from 15% to 40% depending on the species. At some locations in the Sound, 70 to 90% of the benthic fish English sole and ratfish had plastic in their stomachs. Zooplankton are ingesting microplastics for food, local and iconic adult salmon are ingesting anywhere between 39 to 91 particles of plastic per day and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) which often venture into the Puget Sound can ingest up to 30,000 pieces of plastic within one day. While these are just a few of the organisms we have locally, plastic has been found in the stomachs of over 600 species worldwide.