Quite a while ago, I wrote an article about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which ended up being included in a book entitled Opposing Viewpoints Series – Garbage & Recycling. While the magnitude of the problem is severely overstated in nearly every popular treatment of the subject, it is a real problem. It came about as a result of the fact that some of the plastic which is not disposed of properly ends up in the oceans. A lot of that plastic gets stuck in gyres – permanent circular currents that exist in distinct regions of the seas. In most cases, once the plastic gets stuck in the gyre, it doesn’t leave.
So what happens to this plastic over time? Does it decay? Does it just float there forever? How badly is it affecting the ecosystem of the gyre? A new paper published in Environmental Science and Technology attempts to partially answer these questions. The authors sampled plastic marine debris (PMD), as well as the water in which it was floating, from several different spots in the North Atlantic. They then studied it with a scanning electron microscope (SEM), Raman spectroscopy, and DNA sequencing. The results were fascinating!
The authors found a rich diversity of microscopic organisms living on the plastic.1 In fact, the diversity was so rich that they have decided the plastic supports its own little biological community. As a result, they call the plastic and the organisms living on it the Plastisphere. It’s probably correct to think of it this way, because the organisms living on the plastic are quite different from the ones living in the water where the plastic floats.