Plastic Impacts on the Marine Environment

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in an earlier version of Plastic Free Times

The oft-quoted description of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as a giant patch of garbage, “twice the size of Texas,” is an inaccurate conflation of facts that has been repeated one too many times. The truth of the matter is in fact far more disturbing. The use of disposable, single-use plastic items has effectively turned our oceans into plastic soup.  While it is true that not all marine garbage is plastic, current peer-reviewed research clearly indicates that plastic is the dominant material littering the ocean, and its proportion consistently varies between 60 and 80 percent of the total garbage in the ocean.

Marine research organization 5 Gyres has found a high concentration of both discernible bits of plastic and less obvious, but arguably more dangerous, plasticizing chemicals in all of the world’s five primary ocean gyres. Gyres are large, slow-moving currents that act as giant whirlpools in the world’s oceans.

Impact on Marine Mammals and Sea Birds

In addition to the plastic pollution found in the ocean, researchers are finding more and more plastic washing up on the shores of remote islands, and in the bellies of dead sea birds and marine mammals. In its August 2006 Pollution Bulletin, the Marine Mammal Commission wrote, “The accumulating debris poses increasingly significant threats to marine mammals, seabirds, turtles, fish, and crustaceans. The threats are straightforward and primarily mechanical. Individual animals may become entangled in loops or openings of floating or submerged debris or they may ingest plastic materials. Animals that become entangled may drown, have their ability to catch food or avoid predators impaired, or incur wounds from abrasive or cutting action of attached debris. Ingested plastics may block digestive tracts, damage stomach linings, or lessen feeding drives. The deceptively simple nature of the threat, the perceived abundance of marine life, and the size of the oceans have, until recently, caused resource managers to overlook or dismiss the proliferation of potentially harmful plastic debris as being insignificant. However, developing information suggests that the mechanical effects of these materials affect many marine species in many ocean areas, and that these effects justify recognition of persistent plastic debris as a major form of ocean pollution.”



Andrady, Anthony. (2011). “Microplastics in the marine environment.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 62: 1596-1605.

Araujo M, Santos P, Costa M. (2006). “Ideal width of transects for monitoring source-related categories of plastics on beaches.” ScienceDirect 52: 957-961.

Ashton, K., Holmes, L., and Turner, A. (2010).  “Association of metals with plastic production pellets in the marine environment.”  Marine Pollution Bulletin 60.11: 2050-2055.

Barnes, D. K. A., F. Galgani, et al. (2009). “Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364.1526: 1985–1998.

Bennett, G. R. (1960). “Rubber bands in Puffin’s stomach.” British Birds 53: 222.

Boerger C, Lattin G, Moore S, Moore C. (2010). “Plastic ingestion by planktivorous fishes in the North Pacific Central Gyre.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 60: 2275-2278.

Braid, H. et al. (2012). “Preying on Commercial Fisheries and Accumulating Paralytic Shellfish Toxins: A Dietary Analysis of invasive Docidicius gigas (Cephalapoda Ommastrephidae) Stranded in Pacific Canada.” Marine Biology 159 (1): 25-31.

Brander, Susanne, et. al. (2011). “The Ecotoxicology of Plastic Marine Debris.” The American Biology Teacher 73 (8): 474- 478.

Browne, M.A., et al. (2011). “Accumulation of microplastic on shorelines woldwide: sources and sinks.” Environmental Science and Technology 45.21: 9175-9179.

Cadee G. (2002). “Seabirds and floating plastic debris.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 44: 1294-1295.

Carnevali, O., et al. (2010). “DEHP impairs zebrafish reproduction by affecting critical factors in oogenesis.” PLoS ONE.

Carson H, Colbert S, Kaylor M, McDermid K. (2011). “Small plastic debris changes water movement and heat transfer through beach sediments.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 62. 8: 1708-1713.

Cho, D.O. (2011). “Removing derelict fishing gear from the deep seabed of the East Sea.” Marine Policy 35.5: 610-614.

Conners, Peter, Kimberly G. Smith. (1982).  “Oceanic plastic particle pollution: Suspected effect on fat deposition in red phalaropes,” Marine Pollution Bulletin 13(1): 18-20.

Casanova-Nakayama A, Wenger M, Burki R, Eppler E, Krasnov A, Segner H. (2011). “Endocrine disrupting compounds: Can they target the immune system of fish?” Marine Pollution Bulletin 63. 5-12: 412-416.

D’Ilio S, et al. (2011). “The occurrence of chemical elements and POPs in loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta): An overview.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 62: 1606-1615.

Davison, P. and Asch, R.G. (2011).  “Plastic ingestion by mesopelagic fishes in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.”  Marine Ecology Progress Series 432: 173-180.

Denuncio P, Bastida R, Dassis M, Giardino G, Gerpe M, Rodríguez D. (2011). “Plastic ingestion in Franciscana dolphins, Pontoporia blainvillei (Gervais
and d’Orbigny, 1844), from Argentina.” 
Marine Pollution Bulletin 62. 8: 1836-1841.

Derraik J. (2002). “The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review.”Marine Pollution Bulletin 44:842-852.

Doyle, M.J., Watson, W., Bowlin, N.M., and Sheavly, S. B. (2011).  “Plastic particles in coastal pelagic ecosystems of the Northeast Pacific ocean.”  Marine Environmental Research 71.1: 41-52.

Du Sul, I., et al. (2011). “Plastics in the Antarctic Environment: Are we looking at only the tip of the iceberg?” Oecologica Australis 15(1): 150-170.

Escardo´-Boomsma, J., K. O’Hara, et al. (1995). National Marine Debris Monitoring Program: Lessons Learned. Washington, D.C., US EPA Office of Water.

Frias, J.P.G.L., Martins, J., Sobral, P. (2011).  “Research in plastic marine debris in mainland Portugal.”  Journal of Integrated Coastal Zone Management 11.9: 145-148.

Frias, J.P.G.L., Sobral, P., and Ferreira, A.M.  “Organic pollutants in microplastics from two beaches of the Portuguese coast.”  Marine Pollution Bulletin 60.11: 1988-1992.

Foster K, Mallory M, Hill L, Blais J. (2011). “PCB and Organochlorine pesticides in northern fulmars (fulmarus glacialis) from a high arctic colony: chemical exposure, fate, and transfer to predators.” Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 30. 9: 2055-2064.

GESAMP. (2010). “Proceedings of the GESAMP International Workshop on micro- plastic particles as a vector in transporting persistent, bio- accumulating and toxic substances in the oceans. 28-30th June 2010, UNESCO-IOC, Paris.” GESAMP Reports & Studies 82: 1-68.

Greenpeace (2006) “Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans.” Defending Our Oceans, 44.

Gregory, M. R. (2009). “Environmental implications of plastic debris in marine settings: entanglement, ingestion, smothering, hangers-on, hitch-hiking and alien invasions.”Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364.1526: 2013-2025.

Guny, C., et al., (2008) “Dibutyltin Disrupts Glucocorticoid Receptor Function and Impairs Glucocorticoid-Induced Suppression of Cytokine Production.” PLoS ONE 3.10.

Guneroglu, A. (2010).  “Marine litter transportation and composition in the coastal southern Black Sea region.”  Scientific Research and Essays 5.3: 296-303.

Hammer, J. et al. (2012). “Plastics in the Marine Environment: The Dark Side of a Modern Gift.” Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 220: 1-44.

Han X.B., Lei E, Lam M, Wu R.S.S. (2011). “A whole life cycle assessment on effects of waterborne PBDEs on gene expression profile along the brain–pituitary–gonad axis and in the liver of zebrafish.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 63: 160-165.

Harper, P. C. and J. A. Fowler (1987). “Plastic pellets in New Zealand storm-killed prions (Pachyptila spp.) 1958-1977.” Notornis 34.1: 5.

Hirai H, Takada H, et al. (2011). “Organic micropollutants in marine plastics debris from the open ocean and remote and urban beaches.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 62. 8: 1683-1692.

Hinojosa, I.A., Rivadeneira, M.M., and Thiel, M. (2011). “Temporal and spatial distribution of floating objects in coastal waters of central–southern Chile and Patagonian fjords.” Continental Shelf Research 31.3-4: 172-186.

Harper, P. C. and J. A. Fowler (1987). “Plastic pellets in New Zealand storm-killed prions (Pachyptila spp.) 1958-1977.” Notornis 34.1: 5.

Hutchinson, Judith, Mark Simmonds. (1991).  A review of the effects of pollution on marine turtles. London: Greenpeace International.

Hutton, Ian et al. (2008).  “Plastic ingestion by flesh-footed and wedge-tailed shearwaters,” Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, Volume 142(1):1-6.

Ivar do Sul, J.A., Santos, I.R., Friedrich, A.C., Matthiensen, A., and Fillmann, G. (2011). “Plastic pollution at a sea turtle conservation area in NE Brazil: Contrasting developed and undeveloped beaches.” Estuaries and Coasts 34.4: 814-823.

Jackson, George, et al. (2000)    “Diet of the southern opah Lampris immaculatus on the Patagonian Shelf; the significance of the squid Moroteuthis ingens and anthropogenic plastic,” Inter-Research, Marine Ecology Progress Series 206: 262-271.

Keeling, A. (2007). “Charting marine pollution science: oceanography on Canada’s Pacific coast, 1938-1970.” Journal of Historical Geography 33: 403-428.

Kukulka, T., (2012). “The Effect of Wind Mixing on on the Vertical Distribution of Buoyant Plastic Debris.” Geophysical Research Letters.

Laist D. (1987). “Overview of the Biological Effects of Lost and Discarded Plastic Debris in the Marine Environment.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 18. 6B: 319-326.

Laist, D. (1997). “Impacts of marine debris: entanglement of marine life in marine debris including a comprehensive list of species with entanglement and ingestion records.” Marine Debris: Sources, Impacts, and Solutions. J. M. Coe and D. B. Rogers. New York, Springer-Verlag: 99-140.

Lattin G.L., Moore C.J., Zellers A.F., Moore S.L., Weisberg S.B. (2004). “A comparison of neustonic plastic and zooplankton at different depths near the southern California shore.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 49: 291-294.

Law, K. L., S. Morét-Ferguson, et al. (2010). “Plastic Accumulation in the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre.” Science 329: 1185-1190.

Lazar, B. and Gracan, R. (2011).  “Ingestion of marine debris by loggerhead sea turtles, Caretta caretta, in the Adriatic Sea.”  Marine Pollution Bulletin 62.1: 43-47. 

Lithner, D., Larsson, Å., and Dave, G. (2011). “Environmental and health hazard ranking and assessment of plastic polymers based on chemical composition.”  Science of The Total Environment 409.18: 3309-3324.

Lobelle, D., Cunliffe, M. (2011). “Early microbial biofilm formation on marine plastic debris.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 62: 197-200.

Madzena, A., Lasiak, T. (1997). “Spatial and Temporal Variations in Beach Litter on the Transkei Coast of South Africa.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 34. 11: 900-907.

Martine, A.R, and M.R. Clarke. (1986). “The Diet of Sperm Whales (Physeter Macrocephalus) Captured Between Iceland and Greenland,” Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 66: 779-790.

Mascarenhas, Rita, et al. (2004). “Plastic debris ingestion by sea turtle in Paraı́ba, Brazil,” Marine Pollution Bulletin 49(4): 354-355.

Mato, Y., T. Isobe, et al. (2001). “Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium for Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment.” Environmental Science & Technology 35.2: 7.

Metcalf, R., Booth, G., Schuth, C., Hansen, D., Lu, P. (1973). “Uptake and Fate of Di-2 ethylhexyl Phthalate in Aquatic Organisms and in a Model Ecosystem.” Environmental Health Perspectives: 27-34.

Moore, C., G. L. Lattin, et al. (2011). “Quantity and type of plastic debris flowing from two urban rivers to coastal waters and beaches of Southern California.” Journal of Integrated Coastal Zone Management 
11.1: 65-73.

Moore, Charles, et al (2001). “A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre”Marine Pollution Bulletin 42(12): 1297-1300.

Moore, S.L., Gregorio, D., Carreons, M., Weisberg, S.B., Leecaster, M.K. (2001). “Composition and distribution of beach debris in Orange County, California.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 42. 3: 241-245.

Morét-Ferguson, S., Law, K., Proskurowski, G., Murphy, E., Peacock, E., Reddy, C. (2010). “The size, mass, and composition of plastic debris in the western North Atlantic Ocean.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 60: 1873-1878.

Mrosovsky, et al. (2009). “Leatherback turtles: The menace of plastic,” Marine Pollution Bulletin 58 (2): 287.

Murray, F., Cowie, P. (2011). “Plastic contamination in the decapod crustacean Nephrops norvegicus (Linnaeus, 1758).” Marine Pollution Bulletin 62: 1207-1217.

Nakashima, E., Isobe, A., Magome, S., Kako. S,, Deki, N. (2011). “Using aerial photography and in situ measurements to estimate the quantity of macro-litter on beaches.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 62. 4: 762-769.

Nakayama, K., Sei, N., Handoah, I., Shimasaki, Y., Honjo, T., Oshima, Y. (2011). “Effects of polychlorinated biphenyls on liver function and sexual characteristics in Japanese medaka (Oryzias latipes).” Marine Pollution Bulletin 63. 5-12: 366-369.

O’Brine, T., Thompson, R. (2010). “Degradation of plastic carrier bags in the marine environment.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 60. 12: 2279-2283.

Pichel, William, et al. (2007). “Marine debris collects within the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone,” Marine Pollution Bulletin 54(8): 1207-1211.

Portz, L., Manzolli, R.P., and Ivar do Sul, J.A. (2011). “Marine debris on Rio Grande do Sul north coast, Brazil: spatial and temporal patterns.” Journal of Integrated Coastal Zone Management 11.1: 41-48.

Possatto, F.E., Barletta, M., Costa, M.F., do Sul, J.A.I., and Dantas, D.V.  (2011). “Plastic debris ingestion by marine catfish: An unexpected fisheries impact.”  Marine Pollution Bulletin 62.5: 1098-1102.

Provencher, J., Gaston, A., Mallor,y M., O’hara, P., Gilchrist, H. (2010). “Ingested plastic in a diving seabird, the thick-billed murre (Uria lomvia), in the eastern Canadian Arctic.”Marine Pollution Bulletin 60. 9: 1406-1411.

Ribic, C.A., Sheavly, S.B., and Rugg, D.J. (2011). “Trends in marine debris in the U.S. Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico 1996-2003.” Journal of Integrated Coastal Zone Management 11.1: 7-19.

Rios L., Jones P., Moore C., Narayan U. (2010). “Quantitation of persistent organic pollutants adsorbed on plastic debris from the Northern Pacific Gyre’s ‘eastern garbage patch’.” Journal of Environmental Monitoring 12: 2226-2236.

Robards, M. D., P. J. Gould, et al. (1997). “The highest global concentrations and increased abundance of oceanic plastic debris in the North Pacific: evidence from seabirds.” Marine Debris: Sources, Impacts, and Solutions. J. M. Coe and D. B. Rogers. New York, Springer-Verlag.

Rudel, R., et al. (1988). “Effects of Ingested Plastic on Seabird Feeding: Evidence from Chickens.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 19. 3: 125-128.

Ryan, P. G., C. J. Moore, et al. (2009). “Monitoring the abundance of plastic debris in the marine environment.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364.1526: 1999–2012.

Ryan, P. (2008). “Seabirds indicate changes in the composition of plastic litter in the Atlantic and south-western Indian Oceans.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 56: 1406-1409.

Ryan, P. G. (1987). “The incidence and characteristics of plastic particles ingested by seabirds.” Marine Environmental Research 23.3: 175-206.

Scott, G. (2011). “The changing nature of oceanic plastics litter.”  International Journal of Environmental Studies 682: 191-195.

Secchi, Eduardo, Simoni Zarzur. (1999).”Plastic debris ingested by a Blainville’s beaked whale, Mesoplodon densirostris, washed ashore in Brazil,”Aquatic Mammals 25(1): 21-24.

Shadove, Samuel and Stephen Morreale.  (1989).  “Marine mammal and sea turtle encounters with marine debris in the New York Bight and the Northeast Atlantic,” In (eds) R. S. Shomura and M. L. Godfrey, Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Marine Debris,2-7 April 1989, Honolulu, Hawaii. U.S. Dep. Comer., NOM Tech  Memo. NMFS, NoAA-YH-NMFS-S~FSC-1: 562-570.

Stevenson, C.  (2011).  “Plastic Debris in the California Marine Ecosystem: A Summary of Current Research, Solution Strategies and Data Gaps.”  University of Southern California Sea Grant. Synthetic Report. California Ocean Science Trust, Oakland, CA.  70pp.

Teuten, E. L., J. M. Saquing, et al. (2009). “Transport and release of chemicals from plastics to the environment and to wildlife.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364.1526: 2027-2045.

Thiel, M., Hinojosa, I.A., Joschko, T., and Gutow, L.  (2011). “Spatio-temporal distribution of floating objects in the German Bight (North Sea).”  Journal of Sea Research 65.3: 368-379.

Thiel, M., Bravo, M., Hinojosa, I. A., Luna, G., Miranda, L., Núñez, P., Pacheco, A.S., and Vásquez, N. (2011).  “Anthropogenic litter in the SE Pacific: An overview of the problem and possible solutions.”  Journal of Integrated Coastal Zone Management 11.1: 115-134.

Thompson, R., Moore, C., Andrady, A., Gregory, M., Takada, H., Weisberg, S. (2005). “New Directions in Plastic Debris.” American Association for the Advancement of Science 310. 5751: 1117.

Turner, A., Holmes, L. (2011). “Occurrence, distribution and characteristics of beached plastic production pellets on the island of Malta (central Mediterranean).” Marine Pollution Bulletin 62. 2: 377-381.

Van Franeker, J.A. et al. (2011). “Monitoring plastic ingestion by the northern fulmar Fulmarus glacialis in the North Sea.”  Environmental Pollution 159.10: 2609-2615.

Vlietstra, L., Parga, J. (2002). “Long-term changes in the type, but not amount, of ingested plastic particles in short-tailed shearwaters in the southeastern Bering Sea. ”Marine Pollution Bulletin 44: 945-955.

Villeneuve, D., et al. (2011). “Ecotoxicogenomics to support ecological risk assessment: A case study with bisphenol A in fish.” Environmental Science & Technology: 1-20.

Votier, S.C., Archibald, K., Morgan, G., and Morgan, L. (2011).  “The use of plastic debris as nesting material by a colonial seabird and associated entanglement mortality.”  Marine Pollution Bulletin 62.1: 168-172.

Williams, Rob, Erin Ashe, et al. (2011). “Marine mammals and debris in coastal waters of British Columbia, Canada,”Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62: 1303–1316.

Wofford, H. W., et al. (1980). “Bioaccumulation and metabolism of pthalate esters by oysters, brown shrimp, and sheepshead minnows,” Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, 5.2: 202-210.

Zarfl, C., Fleet, D., Fries, E., Galgani, F., Gerdts, G., Hanke, G., and Matthies, M. (2011).”Microplastics in oceans.”  Marine Pollution Bulletin 62.
8: 1589-1591.

Zarfl, C., Matthies, M. (2010). “Are marine plastic particles transport vectors for organic pollutants to the Arctic?” Marine Pollution Bulletin 60. 10: 1810-1814.


·       A Gut Full of Plastic, Wingspan, Spring 2011

·       How to Rid the Seas of Plastic Soup?, The New York Times, May 2011

·       Huge Garbage Patch Found in Atlantic Too, National Geographic, March 2010

·       Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash, The New York Times, August 2009

·       Giant Ocean Trash Vortex Attracts Explorers, National Geographic, July 2009

·       The World’s Largest Dump: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Discover Magazine, July 2008

·       Plague of Plastic Chokes the Seas, Los Angeles Times, August 2006


Coe, James, and Donald Rogers, Eds (1996).  Marine Debris: Sources, Impacts, and Solutions.. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Ebbesmeyer, C. C. and E. Scigliano (2009). Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How one man’s obsession with runaway sneakers and rubber ducks revolutionized ocean science. New York, NY, Smithsonian Books: Collins.

Moore, C. and C. Phillips (2011). Plastic ocean: how a sea captain’s chance discovery launched a quest to save the oceans. New York, Avery.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


To Stop Plastic Pollution