Bacteria and Plastic: Pollution and Waste in the Ocean

Plastic eggs and jelly beans - fun for children but bad for the environment
Plastic eggs and jelly beans - fun for children but bad for the environment | Source
Plastic rope
Plastic rope | Source

Plastic use is increasing rapidly in many parts of the world today and is changing human lives. Plastics are certainly useful, but the tendency of many people and organizations to carelessly throw away their used plastic is creating a major pollution problem. Plastic breaks down very slowly and may release toxic substances as it degrades. Some of our plastic waste enters the ocean, where it harms and kills marine animals.

Plastic in the ocean exists not only as chunks and pieces but also as microplastic. Microplastic fragments are less than five millimeters long. These fragments form as plastics in seawater slowly degrade. They are also released into the sewage system when clothing made of plastic fibres such as polyester and acrylic is washed. Microplastic is widespread in the ocean and is especially concentrated in the so-called "garbage patches". These are places in the ocean where water currents trap garbage or pollutants in the area.

Bacteria help to decompose many types of waste. According to the present state of our knowledge, though, there don't seem to be many bacteria that can break down plastic. Some bacteria can decompose bioplastics, which are made from plants such as corn, however.

Researchers have recently discovered that microplastic in the Atlantic Ocean has been colonized by a group of bacteria. The bacteria may be able to degrade the microplastic. Researchers are slowly finding other bacteria that may help to break down plastic. The plastic problem is far from being solved, however.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area of ocean in the North Pacific Gyre. It contains a large amount of microplastic.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area of ocean in the North Pacific Gyre. It contains a large amount of microplastic. | Source

What is Plastic?

A plastic is a synthetic material made of an organic polymer. The word "organic" means that the molecules making up the plastic contain carbon atoms. A "polymer" is a long chain of molecules joined together. Most plastics are made of petrochemicals (chemicals produced from petroleum or natural gas).

Plastics usually contain additives to improve them in some way. Examples of these additives include pigments, flame retardants, stabilizers, plasticizers to improve softness and flexibility and reinforcers to make the plastic tougher.

Plastic pegs are colorful, but wooden pegs are better for the environment.
Plastic pegs are colorful, but wooden pegs are better for the environment. | Source
Plastic waste from a single village
Plastic waste from a single village | Source

Sources of Plastic Waste

The list of plastic items in many people's lives is a long one. A partial list is given below. Sometimes an alternate, plastic-free product can be found with the same function as a plastic item, but not always.

  • storage containers
  • lunch bags and plastic food wrap
  • shopping bags
  • grocery bags
  • drink bottles
  • food packages, such as breads bags, frozen meal containers, yogurt containers and some milk containers
  • containers for cosmetics, shampoo and laundry detergents
  • microbeads in cosmetics such as exfoliating facial scrubs and cleansers
  • medication containers
  • utensils and cutlery
  • straws
  • pens
  • buttons
  • toys
  • furniture such as chairs and tables
  • cases for electronic devices and plastic accessories for these devices
  • credit cards, shopping cards, ID cards and driver's licenses
  • items made of vinyl, nylon, acrylic, polyester, polycarbonate, polyethylene, polypropylene, polybutylene, polystyrene, ABS plastic (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), PLA plastic (polylactic acid) or plastic resins

Objects made of plastic
Objects made of plastic | Source
Plastic beach
Plastic beach | Source

How Does Plastic Waste Enter the Ocean?

Plastic waste may be deposited in the ocean directly or indirectly. Some is deliberately dropped off ships or offshore platforms or is blown or washed off. Some is tossed into the sea by people on land. The rest is blown off the land or washed off by moving water. Plastic deposited in land fills or casually dropped on the ground may eventually reach the ocean.

Altogether, these methods deposit a significant amount of plastic into the ocean every year. The old idea that the oceans are so vast that anything dropped into them will be diluted and have no effect is no longer valid.

Plastic Pollution in the Ocean - World Oceans Day Statement

Plastic crates
Plastic crates | Source

Plastic Waste and Recycling Statistics in the United States

In 2011:

  • 32 million tons of plastic waste were generated, which was approximately 13% of the municipal solid waste stream.
  • In 1960 only 1% of the municipal solid waste stream consisted of plastic.
  • Only 8% of the plastic waste generated in 2011 was recycled.
  • The recycling rate of PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) and of HDPE (high-density polyethylene) bottles and jars was higher than other forms of plastic, with 29% of each type of plastic being recycled.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Plastic Degradation

A commonly held belief is that plastic doesn't break down, apart from the new, biodegradable plastics. This isn't true, however. Regular plastic does break down, but usually very slowly.

Ultraviolet light from the sun breaks some plastics down in as little as a year, while other plastics are thought to need hundreds of years to break down. The light breaks the bonds holding the "building blocks" of the polymer chain together.

Although degradation of plastics sounds like a good thing, it may not be so wonderful. Research suggests that when plastics degrade, they don't disappear but become small pieces of microplastic.

Microplastic fragments enter the bodies of animals. The effects of microplastics on living things aren't known for certain, but their presence worries some researchers, especially as their concentration is increasing. The term "plastic soup" is sometimes used for a region in the ocean that is laden with microplastic particles.

Another problem that develops from plastic degradation is that as the plastics disintegrate they release additives. Some of these additives are known to be harmful to living things, including humans.

Some people think that biodegradable plastics can be left in a landfill and will then be broken down by bacteria. Unfortunately, this isn't the case. When they are buried in a landfill, biodegradable plastics aren't exposed to enough oxygen, light and moisture to break down.

One type of biodegradable plastic is the bioplastic family. Bioplastics are derived from living things, such as corn. They must be sent to a commercial composting plant to be decomposed by specific bacteria under specific environmental conditions. If this isn't done, bioplastics are as dangerous for the environment as regular plastics.

Drinking straws made of plastic
Drinking straws made of plastic | Source
Plastic containers
Plastic containers | Source

Effects of Plastic on Marine Animals

Plastic pollution can have serious consequences for ocean life. Large pieces of plastic may be mistaken for prey and eaten. Sea turtles and whales may mistake a billowing plastic bag for a squid, for example. The plastic may block the animal's airway, causing suffocation, or block the stomach, leading to starvation. It may also prevent food absorption though the intestinal wall or leach toxic substances, poisoning the animal.

In what may (or may not) be an extreme example of plastic waste consumption, in 2013 a dead sperm whale washed up on a Spanish beach with over 37 pounds of plastic debris in its stomach. The plastic existed in the form of 59 different items and included thick plastic sheets, plastic bags, rope, hosepipe, two flower pots and a plastic spray canister. The animal is believed to have died from starvation.

The items in the whale's stomach came from a huge greenhouse industry nearby. The greenhouses occupy almost 99,000 acres and can be seen in satellite views of Earth. Much of the plastic waste produced by the industry is treated in special centers, but a significant amount escapes into the ocean.

Another problem that develops from plastic waste is that some animals become trapped in the plastic six-pack rings used to carry canned drinks. The rings may cause the animal to suffocate or starve. They may also cause an infection if they injure the animal's skin.

Yet another problem that may arise is that plastic debris may cover and kill seaweeds or coral. This may indirectly harm the creatures that depend on the seaweeds or coral for survival.

In 2013 a dead sperm whale was found in Spain with over 37 pounds of plastic and 59 plastic items in its stomach.
In 2013 a dead sperm whale was found in Spain with over 37 pounds of plastic and 59 plastic items in its stomach. | Source

Plastic Nurdles

One of the most common forms of visible plastic in the ocean and on beaches is the plastic nurdle. Nurdles are small pellets which are used to make larger plastic objects. Birds and aquatic animals may eat these, mistaking them for fish eggs. Like larger pieces of plastic, nurdles can cause suffocation, starvation or poisoning. Nurdles may contain toxic substances added during their formation and may also absorb toxins from their environment.

Nurdles are sometimes called "mermaid tears". They enter the marine environment when they are spilled during their production or transport. Unfortunately, they mix with the sand on beaches, making it very hard to remove them.

Ocean Garbage Patches

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn't covered by a blanket of large, easily visible pieces of trash, as some people imagine. Instead, it contains a high concentration of microplastic.

De-mystifying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch


Microplastics are fragments of plastic that are less than 5 mm in length or diameter. They are made from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic. They're also shed from clothing made from synthetic fibers as the clothing is washed in a washing machine. The microbeads in cosmetics and some industrial products are usually microplastics, too.

Plastic pollution combined with ocean circulation patterns is responsible for the creation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area in the Pacific Ocean with an unusually high microplastic concentration. Microplastic is found far beyond the garbage patch, however. As scientists do tests in different parts of the world they are discovering that ocean microplastic has a very widepread distribution.

It's impossible to remove microplastics from sea water. Their particles are too small, too numerous and too widespread. While larger pieces of plastic and some of the substances leached from them are known to be harmful, the effects of microplastics are not so clear. Researchers know that microplastics are entering the bodies of marine animals and are being stored there. They may leach toxic substances, just like larger pieces of plastic, but this has yet to be confirmed.

Turtles are especially susceptible to damage by plastic pollution in the ocean. This is a green turtle.
Turtles are especially susceptible to damage by plastic pollution in the ocean. This is a green turtle. | Source

Toxins From Plastic

Two examples of potential toxins leached from plastic are bisphenol A (or BPA) and chemicals known as phthalates.

Bisphenol A is used in the manufacture of clear polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. It's an endocrine disruptor (a substance that interferes with the action of hormones). The view of the NIH (National Institutes of Health) is that at current exposure levels BPA is not harmful for adult humans, but there is "some concern" about the exposure of fetuses, infants and children to the chemical. BPA is dangerous for at least some marine animals.

There are different kinds of phthalates. They are added to polyvinyl chloride to increase its softness and are also added to cosmetics. Phthalates are thought to be endocrine disrupters in humans and animals. Some members of the family seem to be more dangerous than others. As is the case with BPA, research is ongoing. One type of phthalate is thought to be a carcinogen (cancer causer) in humans, and high levels of another kind may interfere with reproduction or development.

PLA plastic can be made from corn.
PLA plastic can be made from corn. | Source

Bacteria and PLA Plastic

One type of bioplastic is polylactic acid, or PLA. PLA is made from corn starch in North America but is also produced from tapioca roots and sugarcane.

There are two environmentally friendly ways to get rid of unwanted PLA plastic. One method is to use bacteria to break the plastic down into carbon dioxide and water. The bacteria are added to the plastic at a high temperature in a commercial compositing facility. The decomposition process generally takes three to six months.

The other way to deal with unwanted PLA plastic is to melt it and then pass it through an extruder, which will form a new shape from the plastic. Other types of plastic can also be recycled in this way. Some extruders are cheap enough for many consumers to buy, which is good because of the growing popularity and affordability of 3D printers. Consumer-level 3D printers produce solid objects from hot, melted plastic, so it's important that a good way to deal with unwanted plastic objects is available.

Making Plastic From Corn

Other Interactions Between Bacteria and Plastic

In June 2013 scientists from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, reported that they had collected bits of microplastic from the North Atlantic Ocean and found that they had bacteria on their surface. The bacterial community in the "plastisphere" habitat was different from the community in the surrounding water.

The microplastic fragments had tiny pits on their surface. The pits matched the shape of the bacteria. In addition, the researchers identified plastisphere bacteria that could break down hydrocarbons, which are found in plastics. These observations led the scientists to believe that the bacteria were degrading the microplastic. It's unknown whether the bacteria in the plastisphere convert plastics into harmless chemicals or instead release toxins from the plastic as they degrade it.

There are other bacteria that have been found to break down plastic in experiments, although as in the above example it's unknown how significant this is in natural environments. It's possible that plastic-degrading bacteria may one day be useful to us, however.

How to Make a Corn Bioplastic at Home

A Plastic Waste Poll

How do you deal with the plastic waste that you create in your life?

  • I'm very concerned about plastic waste. I try hard to avoid plastic or to recycle it.
  • I'm concerned about plastic waste. I avoid it sometimes and/or do some recycling.
  • I'm concerned about plastic waste but haven't started to deal with the waste in my life yet.
  • I haven't thought about the plastic waste that I create before.
  • The plastic waste that I create doesn't bother me.
See results without voting

Reducing the Use of Plastic

Plastic is so ubiquitous in most people's lives that it may be hard to avoid it. There are many websites that either help people lead plastic-free lives or help them to greatly reduce their use of plastic. If a person searches for "living plastic free" on the Internet, they'll find page after page of useful links.

A plastic-free lifestyle does require some creative thinking. In some cases the lifestyle is too inconvenient or too expensive for a family or individual to follow rigidly. Sometimes it simply isn't possible to avoid plastic. After all, a person can't refuse to accept a needed medication just because it's in a plastic container.

The best solution for the plastic problem is to encourage people to reduce their use of plastic significantly and to find better ways to either recycle their plastic or break it down. Lobbying companies to find alternatives for plastic containers or products may be helpful, but not if the alternate product is more expensive.

Researchers and inventors are investigating new types of biodegradable plastics. These may be very helpful in the future, as long as they have other necessary properties (such as strength) in addition to being biodegradable.

We definitely need to change the way in which we deal with plastic. We are harming ocean life with our plastic debris. Since humans eat marine animals such as fish, we may also be harming ourselves.

© 2013 Linda Crampton

More by this Author


billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

Can you imagine life without plastic? All of the things we use on a daily basis that would be gone.....I doubt modern society could adjust, and yet everything you said in this hub is true.

Great facts and research; hopefully this will help in some way.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Bill. Yes, we depend on plastic in so many ways. This is truly the "plastic age"! Reducing plastic use and recycling are important, but eliminating plastic completely is virtually impossible for most people. Thank you for the comment.

MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 3 years ago from South Africa

I remember a time plastic was not available. Containers were made of tin, glass, ceramic, paper, etc. Then came plastic. Now I can't imagine life without plastic. I LOVE the fact that corn can be converted into plastic, and, of course, recycling of plastic is essential. It should not become dangerous waste.

Excellent hub, Alicia. I learn so much from you :)

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Martie! It must be hard for young people to realize that it was once possible to live without plastic! Plastics certainly aren't evil - they are used to make very useful items. It's the way that we treat them that's the problem. I would love the production of biodegradable plastics to replace the manufacture of conventional plastics. Consumer education is important, though. At the moment, "biodegradable" plastics are only biodegradable under certain conditions.

PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 3 years ago from Dallas, Texas

Hi Alicia. I'm in that age group that remembers life with little or no plastic. Even the large soda bottles were made of glass and milk came in a waxed cardboard carton. For some time now, I've been concerned about the huge island of garbage and plastic that has invaded our oceans. Our marine wild life is definitely endangered by these careless discards. You've really described the dangers of plastic and its long life span here, to the point, that we all need to curb our consumption whenever possible. Voted up and shared.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Peg. Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the share. I'm been thinking back to my childhood since I wrote this hub and realizing how little plastic was in my life. I love the technological advances that have happened in the present. The use of plastic in our modern devices and world is worrying, though, due to the huge amount of plastic waste that is being created.

drbj profile image

drbj 3 years ago from south Florida

You are so right, Alicia, that our enormous usage of plastic products may be harming not only marine life but ultimately ourselves when we ingest fish, for example. We must find substitutes that are less harmful. Excellent research and exposition, m'dear. Voted Up.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, drbj. Thanks for the comment! I appreciate it. Yes, we must find substitutes for conventional plastics, or at least better ways to deal with plastic. Plastic waste is a serious problem already, and the problem is going to get worse if we don't find a solution now.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States

I knew plastic was a problem in the ocean,but I didn't realize to what degree. This is an excellent, very informative hub. It is really a huge problem and we need to find alternative products. People use to just deal with glass and wash everything. They survived and didn't destroy nature doing so. Voted up and awesome.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment and the votes, Pamela! Yes, we do need to find new materials to make the everyday products that we use. Research and development are very important to help us live in harmony with nature.

Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 3 years ago from San Francisco

In SF, we are fined heavily for not separating our trash.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

This sounds like an interesting plan, Martin. Thanks for sharing the information.

bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 3 years ago from Massachusetts

Great Hub Alicia. I thought about doing a hub on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch a while ago but it never materialized. You have done a terrific job with this topic. It really is a shame that a lot of the plastic winds up in the ocean and affects the marine life. This has become a pet peeve of mine, trying to reduce our use of plastic. Excellent research. Voted up, shared and pinned.

Elias Zanetti profile image

Elias Zanetti 3 years ago from Athens, Greece

The amount of plastic and other garbage that end up in the oceans in huge and causes many problems by further polluting the natural environment of marine file and not only. Very interesting and useful hub that contributes to public awareness about plastic waste in the ocean.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Bill. I'm very glad to hear that other people are concerned about plastic! I appreciate your comment. Thank you for the vote, the share and the pin, too.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Elias. Thank you for the visit and the comment. Yes, I talk about plastic waste in this hub, but other types of garbage enter the oceans, too. It's a sad situation.

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 3 years ago

I do try to avoid plastic, but when I buy it I recyle. Great post on protecting our environment and marine life. Voted up++

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment and the vote, Dianna. I have the same approach to plastic as you. I try to avoid it, and when I can't, I recycle it or reuse it in some way.

Sue Bailey profile image

Sue Bailey 3 years ago from South Yorkshire, UK

Voted up, pinned and shared. Highly informative and thought provoking hub Alicia

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, Sue. I appreciate the vote, pin and share, too!

pinto2011 profile image

pinto2011 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

Hi AliciaC! Thumbs up to you for taking up such an important environment issue. I have stopped using any kind of plastic. I carry cloth bag and different types of containers for my shopping.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, pinto2011. It's great to hear that you've stopped using plastic! That's a wonderful way to help the environment.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

Very well done, Alicia, which of course, ties in with living a green lifestyle. I have a friend that uses plastic pill bottles for crafts. I picked up some trash at the lake today, as I do many days. The city even put extra trash receptacles, which helps me dispose of this material without having to carry it far. Awesome, up, and sharing. If I knew how to attach this to Life at Boomer Lake, I would do so.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you so much for the wonderful support, Deb! I appreciate the votes and the share very much. I've noticed "specialized" trash and recycling containers building up in my community, which is a very good thing. I just hope that the slowly building awareness of the dangers of plastic waste develops fast enough to stop an ecological disaster.

UberGeekGirl profile image

UberGeekGirl 3 years ago from Calgary

Society adjusted just fine to every other huge change just fine... cars over horses, airplanes over trains, plastic over paper :) We're human, we adapt.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

I hope you're right, UberGeekGirl, but right now many people don't consider the ways in which humans are harming the oceans and ocean life and aren't changing their damaging behaviors. People's lives with plastic may be just fine, but the changes in the ocean and its life aren't. It's not only our plastic waste that's damaging the ocean, but other factors caused by humans too, such as destructive fishing methods. Perhaps we will eventually reach a crisis point where the state of the oceans affects us so strongly that we are forced to adapt and make widespread changes in the ways in which we treat the oceans.

Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

Glimmer Twin Fan 3 years ago

While this is an incredibly interesting and useful hub, it is also disturbing to me. Take a walk along any beach, river or stream and you'll find plastic trash everywhere. It's quite sad to see and the harm this trash is doing is devastating. Well done hub!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Glimmer. Yes, the plastic situation is very disturbing. Some people either don't realize what's happening to the ocean or don't care. Perhaps they think that the ocean is so vast that it doesn't matter what we dump into it, which is no longer the case! Thank you very much for the visit and the comment.

DDE profile image

DDE 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

Bacteria and Plastic Waste in the Ocean well said such waste can harm the ocean and the precious life that exists, very important information.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the comment, DDE. I appreciate your visit.

Vellur profile image

Vellur 2 years ago from Dubai

I wish scientists will be able to find bacteria that can easily get rid of plastic waste. Till then I think we should reuse plastic containers as much as we can or use biodegradable plastic. Interesting and informative hub, voted up.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment and the vote, Vellur. I hope that bacteria that can quickly degrade plastic are found, too. We need to reduce plastic waste right now, though, as you suggest!

Artois52 profile image

Artois52 2 years ago from England

Great hub. I think more should be done to discourage manufacturers using too much packaging generally. They seem to think that more packaging infers a higher quality. A lot of packaging is unnecessary and less of it would make actually getting into some products a lot less annoying as well as being better for the environment!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

I agree, Artois52! Using less packaging on some items would be a great step forward. Thank you very much got the comment.

mary615 profile image

mary615 2 years ago from Florida

I applaud you for all the research you did on this Hub! I remember when items were purchased in glass. I try to stay away from plastics as much as possible.

Another interesting concept I think is the idea of foods made with an edible wrapping. I wrote a Hub about that. That would eliminate plastic covering for a lot of foods.

One of my pet peeves is all the unnecessary wrapping that is used on everyday purchases.

Voted UP,etc. and shared. Will also share on Google+

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you so much for the kind comment, the votes and the shares, Mary! When I was a child milk was routinely sold in glass bottles. Now milk in bottles seems to be sold only by specialist dairies, at least where I live. Edible wrapping for food is an excellent idea. We definitely need to find some creative ways to reduce our use of plastic!

Nadine May profile image

Nadine May 2 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

Great hub in this very worrying situation. It's hard-breaking when you see the damage it does to birds alone. We take our own material bags to the shops. We aim for items that are packaged in glass, and yes we recycle plastic every 2 weeks, but its the retail stores and packaging companies that need to find better ways away from using plastic, or we as consumers must stop buying those products altogether. I will share this hub. Thanks

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Nadine. Thank you for the comment and the share! Like you, I avoid or recycle plastic, but you are so right - there need to be fewer plastic items on sale!

heidithorne profile image

heidithorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

Being in the promotional products industry, you can imagine that plastic concerns are concerns for me, too. That's why I always recommend that customers seriously consider whether they really need to buy any promotional item and reduce their purchase to the smallest quantity needed. Excellent review of the plastics situation! Voted up and interesting!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Heidi. I appreciate your comment and the votes! The use of plastics must be a serious problem in your industry. It's great that you are trying to improve the situation.

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