Plastics and other marine debris, essentially garbage, get their own category. Marine debris can be both a point and nonpoint source pollutant. The term plastics refers to plastics bags, wrappers, disposable razors, shopping bags, plates, rings for soda cans, bottles, etc. Things that make humans daily lives convenient tend to include plastic. The problem is that plastic does not biodegrade, which means that it remains in the environment for as long as 1000 years. One piece of plastic has the ability to outlive generations of marine mammals. Plastic was first introduced into our society in the 1950s and 1960s. In this short period of time (approximately 50 years), billions of pounds of plastic has been disposed of in the oceans.
As a result, marine debris is accumulating at the surface creating a mesh of plastics in the Pacific Ocean as well as polluting all other oceans. In 1998, according to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, 267 species of animals were either caught in, entangled, or ate, ingested plastics.
All marine animals are affected by plastics in similar ways. When animals become entangled, they cannot move as freely. The decrease in movement can result in starvation because they are unable to get enough food to sustain them; exhaustion from trying to free themselves which usually leads to drowning; or infection from the deep wounds caused by the tightening of the plastics as they try to free themselves or as they grow.
Seabirds will often eat pieces of stryofoam and other small pieces of plastics floating in the ocean. They mistake it for a small fish and will sometimes feed it to their young. This and other plastics can fill up their stomachs and intestines creating a false sense of being full, the birds will then starve.
Seals and sea lions, whales and sea turtles often get trapped in abandoned fishing nets, sometimes called ghost gear as they dive for food, and either suffocate or drown. Seals, who are very playful and curious, like to swim and play through pieces of plastic netting. The netting then becomes wrapped around the neck of the seal, often leading to death either by suffocation or infection caused by the deep cuts.
Seabirds are not the only animals to fall victim to thinking that plastics are food. Sea turtles and whales often mistaken plastics bags for jellyfish and squid. Ingesting the plastic bags can cause suffocation and clog the intestines of these animals. The clogging prevents the animal from obtaining the necessary nutrients it needs to survive.