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Frequently Asked Questions About Plastic Pollution

Q: How big is the "garbage patch" of plastic in the ocean?

A: Many people have heard that there is a garbage patch of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of the state of Texas. While it can be helpful to refer to a land mass to conceptualize the size of the problem, this description can be misleading. Plastic pollution is found in all of the world's oceans. Ocean currents throughout the globe converge in five large gyres, one of which is located in the Pacific Ocean. Plastic pollution gets concentrated in all of these gyres, but these are not the only places in the ocean that plastic is found. Also, referring to ocean plastic pollution as "garbage patches" may give the inaccurate impression that there are floating islands of plastic in the oceans, while the reality is that most of the plastic materials in the ocean are very small—more like "garbage soup." While we are still learning about how plastics are distributed throughout the water column and where they accumulate, this is clearly a global problem.

Q: Can't we just clean up the plastic?

A: Unfortunately, solving the problem of marine plastic pollution is not as simple as picking up all of the pieces of plastic. While a lot of plastic pollution is concentrated in the gyres, it is not floating in a single mass on the surface. Pieces of plastic are distributed vertically, through the water column. Plastic breaks down into tiny particles in the ocean, making clean-up efforts very difficult. One of the many challenges of cleanup is how to remove the plastics from the ocean without also removing or damaging marine life.

Q: Are bioplastics the solution?

A: The term "bioplastics" is increasingly being used to refer to a wide range of products, some of which are primarily or entirely plant-derived, others of which contain fossil-fuel-derived plastic, and all of which might be biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, some combination, or none of the above. While many companies are marketing these products as "green" alternatives to traditional plastics, the reality is more complex. Even biodegradable and compostable plastics are typically designed to break down efficiently only in commercial composting systems; on land or in water, these plastics generally persist long enough to cause potential hazards to water systems and wildlife. Any plastic, regardless of whether it is derived from plants or from fossil fuels, should be properly disposed of, and ideally should be recyclable and/or compostable to avoid the need to landfill.

Besides the issues related to improper disposal, production of bioplastics is also potentially problematic. Corn-based bioplastics are some of the most widely available bioplastics today -- while these represent a positive step in the growing market toward finding alternatives to non-renewable, fossil-fuel-derived plastic, they rely on the production of corn, which raises concerns about agricultural impacts on land use, food production and global warming. These production impacts are all significantly reduced by specifying bioplastic products made from waste-based agricultural residues (residues left over after harvest from an existing agricultural land use which would otherwise be treated as waste). Replacing some current plastics with renewable bioplastics (especially those made using agricultural residues) is a promising way to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but more research is needed to develop better products which will reduce the reliance on non-renewable resources and address concerns associated with marine plastic pollution.

last revised 3/8/2014

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