05 January 2011

The ocean's top 25 deadliest pollution predators (part two)

The first part of this article addressed such unsavory ocean-bound pollution predators such as aluminum foil/cans, balloons, batteries, bottle caps, condoms and dental floss -- all of which spell certain disaster for marine life -- and today we're going to pick up where we left off.

Discarded Oil

It’s just a little oil…maybe it was carried off of the pavement by a torrential downpour and into local rivers and then lakes and finally the ocean. Shouldn’t be much of a problem, right? Wrong. Containing magnesium as well as benzene, lead, and zinc, motor oil that is discarded in a septic system or directly into the ground ends up joining the 363 million gallons already floating in the sea, much of it from cars and industrial waste (no, I'm not even accounting for the notorious BP Gulf Oil Spill), all of which significantly harms vast biological communities.

Disposable Plastic Lighters

It’s no longer a surprise that albatross chicks are dying at an alarming rate – it’s just plain sad because they are unwittingly feeding on huge lighters, bottle caps and other plentiful sources of plastic refuse that end up blocking their esophagus, triggering malnutrition, dehydration and death.

Drinking Straws

Made out of Polypropylene (PP) plastic, these one-time-use slurping devices more often than not comprise a very common part of the ocean bound flotsam that marine creatures mistake for food. When ingested, they can cause blockages and death due to starvation.

Feminine Products

The Ocean Conservancy’s 2009 International Coastal Cleanup project yielded 20,000 tampon applicators among 4 million total pieces of reclaimed plastic waste, but this is the norm rather than the exception as most cleanup efforts will attest. Sanitary pads are no better. Lasting roughly 25 years during their ocean bound journey before breaking down into smaller bits, they are often be ingested by marine life, causing digestion blockage and death.

Fishing Nets

Responsible for killing diverse ocean-bound species including seabirds, crocodiles, turtles, sea lions, fish, dolphins, crabs and sharks, typical nets are made out of nylon materials which heap further ecological insult upon injury and -- well -- death.

Food Wrappers

Ever wonder how this type of disposable food packaging keeps edibles contained without leaking or being prone to grease stains? The plastic, Mylar and sometimes paper-based materials are commonly coated with diPAP chemicals which end up breaking down into potentially carcinogenic perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOA) – definitely bad for humans and really awful for the marine ecosystem and its already contaminated creatures.

Mesh Plastic Fruit & Vegetable Bags

Designed to allow proper air circulation for specific types of produce, woven plastic onion sacks (among other varieties of bags) have been found wrapped around endangered Hawksbill Sea Turtles and partially swallowed by their fellow ocean neighbors.

Medical Waste

America’s Ocean Dumping Act – created in 1972 to prevent and/or address intentional disposal of inappropriate waste materials into the sea – penalizes offenders with as many as 5 years in prison and/or up to a $125,000 fine for civil violations (all the way up to $250,000 for criminal violations). This is apparently still not enough of a threat to discourage people from covertly chucking used needles, dental red bag waste and other entirely dangerous and potentially contaminating materials into the sea.

Nurdles (also known as “Mermaid Tears”)

Measuring 2mm across, these raw plastic resin pellets are shipped around the world so that they may be turned into the plastic convenience products that we know and love, but on occasion, they spill during transport, adding to the already prolific ocean-bound plastic confetti that kills marine life (that mistakenly think that they are gobbling up tasty-looking fish eggs). Additionally, post-consumer plastic junk that is discarded directly into the ocean ultimately undergoes a metamorphosis into makeshift plastic nurdles thanks to naturally eroding 'wave action'. The makeshift mermaid tears that result may not be as small as the manufactured version but they still successfully trick hungry sea life just as effectively.

Paper Bags

While this type of bag doesn’t seem like it should share company with the other offenders in this lineup, studies have determined that the manufacturing process used to create brown kraft paper bags generates far more toxic chemicals and pollutants than plastic bags. With a relatively limited lifespan of 4 weeks before fully decomposing in water, paper bags are still a nuisance to marine life because they can seriously compromise digestion capabilities.

Plastic Bags

An integral part of our culture for 50+ years, typical polyethylene bags – which are believed to possess a 500 – 1000 year lifespan -- are composed of a man-made polymer plastic that doesn’t biodegrade (since microorganisms won’t gobble it up). However, the material does break down when exposed to ultraviolet radiation, making it brittle and able to infiltrate every corner of the ocean with relative ease.

Plastic Beverage Rings

You know those handy lightweight devices that have held six packs of beverages together for the last 50 years? Despite being intentionally manufactured to photo degrade 90 days after being discarded, they are still responsible for strangling and otherwise contributing to far too many wildlife fatalities.

Plastic Toys

Famously washed overboard during a turbulent storm during 1992, 28,000 China-made “Friendly Floatee” bath toys – including turtles, ducks, beavers and frogs – continue to be recovered all over the world, but they share company with countless other plastic trinkets and play things that tumble into the ocean whether through accident or careless disposal. Beach combers the world over can attest to all of the plastic trinkets that are typically washed ashore. Shame on us. Our junk really is everywhere it shouldn't be.

Polystyrene Containers

Within one year of being submerged in the ocean, extruded polystyrene foam begins to decompose, releasing chemicals that are absorbed into the water and consumed by marine life in the parts-per-million range. Still used in the manufacture of restaurant 'take out' containers as well as coffee cups, packaging material, thermal insulation and craft items, this material is among the worst environmentally speaking because it never “goes away.”

Produce Bags & Trash Can Liners

Low Density Polyethylene bags tend to be a dead-ringer for jellyfish as they pulse serenely through the sea, but once they’re consumed by sea creatures, they almost always cause them to die. If the bag happens to have a colored logo on it, chances are pretty good that the colorant used in the ink contains toxic lead, too.


Almost always plastic in construction, the typical brush consists of entirely non-biodegradable flexible synthetic nylon fibers as well as an equally non-biodegradable rigid handle. Destined to enter the waste stream in as little as 3 months flat, the typical human uses 11 pounds of toothbrushes in their lifetime, untold numbers of which have been found in the Atlantic and Pacific garbage patches as well as on global shore lines the world over.

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/carabanderson