first the bad news:
Plastic is made with petroleum. The manufacturing of plastic produces toxic chemicals. Plastic contains 5 of the 6 chemicals that produce the most hazardous waste. These chemicals are inhaled and ingested by people and have possible health effects including cancer, body system problems, and developmental problems. 8 out of 10 babies and nearly all adults have plastic bi-products in their bodies.
Petroleum based plastics are not biodegradable. Instead of decomposing over time, plastic breaks into smaller pieces (photodegrades) and leaches harmful toxins into the soil and water.
So much plastic and these tiny plastic particles end up in the ocean that the two of the five major gyres (vortexes of seawater caused by colliding currents) have been renamed The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the North Atlantic Garbage Patch (there are 5 major gyres, each containing trash). The Pacific Garbage Patch is now estimated to be twice the size of the United States. (It was estimated at twice the size of Texas when I originally wrote this article in 2012.) The small pieces of plastic also attract other chemicals, making them more toxic. The gyres contain approximately 268 million tons (100 million tons in 2012) of tiny plastic particles and chemical sludge. More than 180 species of animals eat plastic debris, including birds, fish, turtles and marine mammals. The plastic not only clogs the stomachs of these animals, it also poisons them with the chemical concentrate. Many of these fish are then consumed by humans.
map of plastic concentration in the oceans
Now the good news:
There have been several plastic bag and bottle bans popping up all over the world. The town of Bundamon in Australia was the first to ban single use plastic water bottles in 2009 followed by several colleges and Universities, and now San Francisco, California. Even more places have banned plastic bags including the entire State of California and the entire country of China. There are also many businesses that don't use plastic anymore including Whole Foods and IKEA.
Research into alternatives to plastic is growing. Carbon based products are replacing petroleum based plastics. And each product developed is better than the last.
19 year old Byron Slat has an invention that could clean up the ocean in as little as 5 years. Learn more about his project here.
I believe the ultimate solution lays in a shift off of our dependence on plastic and it starts with individual action.