Patrick Eng
An Aspiring Rooster Teeth Employee

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Week 5 - Everything I Needed To Know About Ocean Pollution

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In this week's post, I will be covering various articles related to the current state of ocean pollution. For a few years, I've seen various videos on how humans have destroyed ocean life, both through oil spills and through plastic waste, but have never dug into how that really came to be. And while I will focus on the issue of it all, I also want to learn about what's being done to remedy all of this.

I'm sure many of us have seen the massive oil spills in the news, like the BP oil spill in 2010. But these headline-making oil spills aren't the main reason why our oceans are polluted. While these are terrible disasters that cause tremendous amounts of damage, the true killer is much more silent and consistent.

This article focuses on three main culprits when it comes to ocean pollution, and how many of them are easily overlooked.

Natural Oil Seeps

Turns out, tons of oil is leaking into the ocean each day, and it's not the humans' fault this time. Cracks appear in the ocean floor that leak literally tons of oil every day (20 to 25 tons of oil each day in California's case). While this is a vast quantity of oil to be spilling into the ocean each day, certain organisms have evolved over time to deal with this constant seepage and even eradicate it.

When it's a natural seep, bacteria has time to adapt and actually eat the oil molecules, thus reducing the impact that the seep has on the ocean ecosystem.

When the seepage is man-made, however, that's when things get sticky because the native organisms aren't used to dealing with that oil. Case in point, oil spills, and sewage lines decimating coastline and wildlife.

Land Vehicles

When you have 268 million (registered) cars on the road, you're bound to begin accumulating some oil on the roads. This is an overlooked issue since when you have all these cars dripping tiny droplets of oil all over the road, you just have to wait for the next rainstorm to understand that all of that oil has to go somewhere.

More often than not, it's going into a drain that then feeds into a local river or ocean. And if it doesn't, that oil is settling in the local land environment, causing harm to the ecosystem there. Because it's so widespread and mobile, tracking the movements and repercussions of the oil runoff is very difficult. And even though we know the ecosystem is being harmed, we don't understand the chronic problems that can stem from the oil runoff.

Boats (Recreational)

Like cars, but on water. Yes, I know you know what a boat is. Which means you should understand why this is also a problem.

When your recreational aquatic craft is cruising through the waves, you don't think about the oil and gas you are spilling into the surrounding area. While again, it's not like an oil spill you see on the news, it adds up quickly and goes unnoticed by a majority.

It's like death by a thousand cuts. The ocean is vast, but the constant exposure to poison (or cuts) can eventually kill it.

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"The solution to pollution is dilution." This is the mantra of some people who think that the ocean is so vast that regardless of how much junk we dump in it, there won't be any issues. But even though there 326 million trillion gallons of water on earth (326 followed by 18 zeros), what we dump in it does have an impact on the ocean.

You just need to look at the Mississippi River or the Pacific Ocean trash vortex. You don't need to look far to see that with all the plastic and other items we keep dumping everywhere that it is making an impact, maybe not on our lives directly, but on entire ecosystems. And while human pollution in the ocean is nothing new, it seems to have reached new heights over the past few decades, specifically affecting shorelines.

Let's start off with a simple definition of pollution though, since it's obviously just more than plastic.

Pollution - "the presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance or thing that has harmful or poisonous effects."

So, let's make a nice list shall we?

  1. Plastic of all shapes and sizes

  2. Chemical Fertilizer

  3. Pesticides, Herbicides, etc

  4. Oils

  5. Detergents

  6. Sewage

  7. Foam

All these items add up when they're dumped all over the world, and while many can be consumed by various organisms in the ocean, many drift around and eventually get caught in the ocean currents. These ocean currents then bring all that waste to places like the pacific ocean trash vortex, which has gathered as much plastic as the state of Texas.

Another example would be nitrogen-rich fertilizers that farmers use. When it rains, lots of the chemicals in the fertilizer is washed away and eventually ends up funneling down some river and end up in some larger body of water. Where those two points meet, algae blooms tend to thrive due to the extra nutrients. For those who don't know, algal blooms are bad because they consume all the oxygen in the water and make it a dead zone.

Given the above definition of pollution, we can also look at the effects of noise in bodies of water. And where general pollution involves substances or things, noise pollution involves sounds.

These sound waves that can originate from ships, drills, underwater volcanoes, etc, carry on for miles. These sound waves have the capability of harming or disrupting the underwater ecosystem, especially for animals who rely heavily of sound for uses in hunting, mating, and communication (whales and dolphins).

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Since oceans house an abundant amount of plant and animal life, what we dump into it matters. Not only does it impact aquatic life, but it then swings full-circle back into our lives when we eat any of those organisms.

Causes

While you probably know about most of these causes of ocean pollution, it doesn't hurt to hear them again:

1. Sewage

Any sort of wastewater produced by humans has to go somewhere. Even though I'd like to think that it goes to sewage treatment plants, the truth is we have been dumping raw sewage into oceans for thousands of years. Back when humans were hunter-gatherers, this wasn't a big deal since the population was so tiny. But, as we built cities and populations grew, we quickly found that dumping our sewage into oceans has an immense impact on the ecosystem.

Not only is it just gross, but when we dump straight sewage into the ocean, we are polluting the surrounding area, causing algal blooms, and destroying the plant and animal life.

2. Toxic Chemicals

Life sewage, but artificial. Chemicals spawned from the industrial and agricultural sectors tend to make their way down streams and rivers and into the ocean.

Industrial chemicals are a threat to marine life both because it is just chemical pollution but also because these chemicals affect water temperature. When waters get too warm, many fish aren't able to survive.

3. Land Runoff

When the land becomes oversaturated, the excess water finds the path of least resistance. This excess water tends to pick up whatever it finds and brings it along for the ride. Turns out, this means pollutants like fertilizers, petroleum, and pesticides end up making their way down to the river (not to pray).

4. Oil Spills

As we see in the news, oil rigs in the ocean can sometimes catch fire and explode. This was a terrible event that not only cost people their lives but also caused massive damage to the surrounding area.

This can also happen with large ships that are damaged in storms and accidents. Oil and noise from those ships cause a constant amount of pollution to the surrounding aquatic ecosystem.

5. Mining

Different from drilling for oil, we also have deep sea stations setup to mine for gold, silver, copper, zinc and other useful/precious metals. All this mining has an impact on the surrounding area, again through noise pollution but also pollutants generated by the mining itself.

6. Littering

A relatively obvious one that we were taught since we were children. Even if you don't live near the ocean, tossing a plastic bag on the side of the road could eventually make its way to some source of water. And even if it doesn't, you still shouldn't litter because it's plastic and won't decay in your lifetime.

Effects

The effects of all the pollution we put into the ocean has some obvious effects and some that we just might not think about. Here are some big ones:

1. Spills and Marine Life

We have all probably seen the photos of animals covered in oil. Well, that's what happens when we have an oil spill in the ocean. These animals get covered in oil and either can't swim, fly, breath or eat.

2. Coral Reef Disruption

Coral reefs are like the cities of the ocean. All sorts of aquatic life gathers at reefs to feed and live. When pollutants, let's say oil, enters the area, the reefs aren't able to survive. And if the city is destroyed, the inhabitants are going to have a hard time making it too.

3. Oxygen Depletion

As the ocean's level of dissolved oxygen continues to decrease, more animals will continue to die or just struggle to survive. This ocean deoxygenation is happening for a variety of reasons, but it comes down to the general level of pollution that is happening.

4. Reproductive Issues

Turns out, stuffing chemicals into the body of a living organism has repercussions on their reproductive capabilities. I'll actually be looking at birth control in humans and its effects on our bodies in week 24. But for animals, all these chemicals that are entering the environment can lead to total failure of the reproductive system.

5. An Unhealthy Food Chain

When a tiny fish eats or absorbs plastics and chemicals, and is then eaten by a bigger fish, the results keep stacking. When your food's food's food is pumped with chemicals, it eventually makes its way into your system, leading to a polluted food chain.

6. Human Health

And since we are part of the food chain, this affects us too. When our food is eating polluted food, we also suffer the consequences. And while many laws and regulations are in place to ensure the quality of food that we consume, they're not a guarantee.

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Let's take a little hopeful turn here and look at what is being done to combat this constant pollution. While these aren't THE solutions to ending ocean pollution, they are at least a step in the right direction.

1. The SeaBin

This invention created by two Australian surfers is designed to sit in the water and suck in all the trash around it. Basically, you're putting a trash can in the water to capture any trash floating by and then pumping the water back into the surrounding area.

The SeaBin is made mostly for marinas and docks since they need to be plugged in and emptied, but since they aren't large, they can be placed in high-traffic areas that generate a lot of ocean trash.

While the SeaBin isn't being sold to the public yet, it has been installed in a few select areas for its beta phase.

2. The Ocean Cleanup

Founded by Dutch teenager Boyan Slat in 2013, The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit dedicated to cleaning the ocean. The idea spawned when Boyan took a trip to Greece during high school and saw all the trash when he went diving. After seeing this, he decided to start a movement to clean the ocean.

The Ocean Cleanup's prime target is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is located between California and Hawaii. They knew that the traditional nets and boat method would take too much time and money. So, they needed something that was more self-sufficient and passive. What  Boyan and his team developed was a sort of artificial coastline with the idea of it being the place where trash will naturally collect.

This artificial coastline/barrier will float in the ocean, both following natural sea currents but also going to the places where trash naturally accumulates (like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch).

The Ocean Cleanup is actually scheduled to deploy this year off the coast of San Francisco. Based on how their moving coastline performs, they are trying to reach the Garbage Patch in May 2018.

3. Turning Plastic into Oil

British-based company Recycling Technologies has created a machine that takes various plastics usually considered as non-recyclable and turns it into oil. They accomplish this feat of transmutation using a machine they call the RT7000. The RT7000 takes a bunch of plastic pieces, picks out any undesirables, shreds the rest and dries it.

The shredded pieces enter a furnace and are melted down (called Thermal Cracking) at over 900 Fahrenheit. This thermal cracking produces a vapor that is then refined to make Plaxx®, which has four distinct categories:

  1. Plaxx-8: a light oil substitute for petrochemical plants

  2. Plaxx-16: a low sulfur marine gas oil for marine engines and large-scale heat and energy generation

  3. Plaxx-30: a low sulfur heavy fuel oil

  4. Plaxx-50: a wax-like substance

This machine is also being built so that it would pay for itself after two years of production. The revenue generated through the sales of the above four products is how Recycling Technologies is pitching that their machine can pay for itself in ~2 years.

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Even though this is a click-baity headline, there is still some good information in here that further solidifies what I've already said.

According to this article, the number of dead zones has gone from less than 50 in 1950 to 500 in 2017. The main culprit? Climate change.

Due to the rising ocean temperature levels, aquatic life is hit with a double-whammy:

  1. Warmer water isn't able to hold as much oxygen

  2. Microbes that thrive in low-levels of oxygen produce more Nitrous Oxide (a powerful greenhouse gas)

  3. Fish in warmer water consume more oxygen than normal

And even though rising ocean temperatures have been associated with major extinction events in the past, it's just not a big enough concern for global governments yet. Before real government action (an oxymoron, I know) can take place, more events like the dead zone in Mexico need to happen.

And even though the ocean has natural dead zones, the way they have grown and spread is not natural. If you somehow achieved the power of God one day and combined all the dead zones on Earth, they would be roughly the size of the European Union.

As we know, coastal regions are acutely affected by the chemicals that farmers and factories use, since they eventually make their way down to a body of water. This, in turn, creates an algal bloom, which sucks the oxygen from the surrounding area. It's going to take a lot of convincing (i.e., money) to make global governments take a step in the right direction.

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In this podcast, interviewer Troy Kitch sits down with NOAA Communications Specialist Dianna Parker to talk about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Leading question: What do you think of when I say Great Pacific Garbage Patch - a blanket of cans, tires, plastic bags, and barrels, or minuscule pieces of plastic invisible to the naked eye?

Turns out, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is that latter: a sea of plastic particles that you can't see, but are consumed and absorbed by aquatic life.

Also, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only sea of plastic. There are five main gyres, or systems of circulating, that move and gather a majority of the ocean's plastic (basically conveyor belts for the ocean):

  1. North Atlantic

  2. South Atlantic

  3. North Pacific (The Great Pacific Garbage Patch)

  4. South Pacific

  5. The Indian Ocean

In case you weren't aware, plastic doesn't decompose. First, because it's not organic, and second because even though it breaks down into smaller pieces, it's not smaller pieces of simple matter. So, when you throw a coke bottle into the ocean, it just breaks down into smaller pieces of plastic.

After spending decades in the water, large pieces of plastic eventually break down into particulate matter that makes up the global garbage patches. Some pieces almost start that way too, like those beads you find in soap.

When it comes to animal life consuming this, and other large pieces of plastic, the classic case is the Laysan Albatross on the Midway Atoll. Almost every corpse that has been opened up has had some sort of plastic refuse inside. Not only do they eat the larger plastic pieces, but they also consume fish and other aquatic species that are eating all the plastic as well.

So, if we know where a lot of this plastic is congregating, why don't we just clean it all up?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of this plastic is invisible to the naked eye. So we can't just grab some ships and throw some nets in the water to get it all out (while also trying not to catch any fish).

The other issue is that you would be treating the symptoms, not the cause. We can clean up the oceans all we want and spend billions of dollars to do that every year, but if we never address the issue of humans throwing plastic and chemicals into the ocean, then we just keep wasting money.

The next time you go to the beach, just look around for plastic and waste that is laying there. I'm sure you'll see some. Since the plastic in the ocean stems from our actions, it's up to use to fix it. Start small and join a local cleanup group, or just make simple lifestyle changes that use less plastic.

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Too Long; Didn't Read

Dumping plastic and chemicals into the ocean is a growing problem. It is creating dead zones, destroying entire ecosystems and species, and pushing us towards an unsustainable future.

These dead zones and other garbage patches are the direct result of pollution created through industrial manufacturing, farmland runoff, deep sea drilling, and aquatic vehicles. Industrial manufacturing and farms use many chemicals to treat their products. The chemical runoff can then travel over or underground and eventually make its way to some stream or river that leads into the ocean. Fertilizers used on farms especially affect the areas where the river meets the ocean because the extra nutrients found in those fertilizers create algal blooms, which then create dead zones.

Because of all this, there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Luckily, people and organizations are stepping up to the plate to help. The three main companies I read about were the creators of the SeaBin (a floating container that collects trash), The Ocean Cleanup (an organization founded by Dutch teenager Boyan Slat that has designed an artificial coastline that collects trash), and Recycling Technologies (a company that takes non-recyclable plastics and turns them into oil).

While we can work to clean up the oceans as much as we want, change won't really happen unless we attack the source. Work needs to done to educate people on the harmful effects of plastic, and how living a more sustainable life can be achieved.

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Patrick Eng