The "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" came
to the attention of the world in the mid-1990s. Since then, there has been
increasing interest from scientists, the public and policy makers regarding plastic
debris in the environment.
A focus article in the July issue of the
Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry's journal, Environmental
Toxicology and Chemistry, outlines the current research, identifies research
gaps on plastic debris and reviews some of the weight of evidence regarding
contamination, fate and effects of the material.
The public's interest in the issues and
economic impacts of plastic debris has led to an increase in activity from both
scientists and policy makers.
Over the last several decades, scientists have
generated substantial evidence regarding the widespread contamination of
plastic debris. It's not only an eyesore that can disrupt local tourism and
fishing--plastic debris can harm or even kill an organism via entanglement,
ingestion or smothering.
Scientists were able to quantify the amount of
debris in the plastic gyres, showing contamination in every ocean, which led to
the prohibition of discharging trash into the sea.
The effects of microplastics and nanoplastics
are less obvious, and therefore much of the related research is still in its
infancy. Most recently, studies about microbeads in personal care products and
fiber particles from textiles that wash down household drains have raised
concerns among the public. Bans on microplastics in personal care products have
already been introduced in the US, EU, Canada and Australia, even as the
chemical and biological effect on individual organisms is not fully known.
Other examples of how science has already been
used to inform policy change and mitigation include legislation banning or
taxing single-use, lightweight plastic bags from stores in parts of North and
South America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia.
In other cases, the article notes, safer
alternatives exist and are within reach, such as waxed paper straws that may
eliminate the flurry of plastic straws that make it into the environment every
day. Additionally, best management practices, the support of circular economies
and public awareness campaigns are underway worldwide.
As new scientific understanding breeds new
questions, scientists are working to fill data gaps regarding the fate and
effects of plastic debris and the mechanisms that drive these processes.
In parallel, says the article, policy makers
can continue to enforce positive change by addressing mismanagement,
determining locations where mitigation may be most critical and deciding what
legislation regarding product bans or waste management may be most effective.