Pacific gyre. Photo credit, Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Plastic Debris in the Marine Environment

Marine debris is defined as any persistent manmade object discarded, disposed of, or abandoned that enters the coastal or marine environment. In recent years, the accumulation of debris in convergence zones within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre have garnered much attention under the media-generated label, "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch." However, marine debris and its impacts are not isolated to distant parts of the Pacific Ocean. Research shows, for example, that there are significant deposits of small, or micro-plastic debris accumulating in various amounts along California's shoreline. This is a problem for a state like California, which boasts a multibillion-dollar tourism industry oriented around its scenic coast.

Report Background

The California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) has prioritized the issue of marine debris, and is committed to finding solutions aimed at reducing ocean and coastal debris and its impacts on ecosystems. A significant percentage of marine debris, up to 80% in some places, is plastic, and scientific estimates for the degradation time of plastics in the ocean are on the order of hundreds to thousands of years. Thus the OPC commissioned an independent synthesis of scientific information to serve as a place-marker for the current state of research on plastic debris in California's marine environment.

OST partnered with USC Sea Grant, a known leader on the topic of water quality, to produce this report. The author, with a Master's degree in marine toxicology and training in science communication, was tasked with writing an accessible summary of the latest scientific research on the sources, pathways, impacts and fate of plastics in California's coastal and marine environment, including an emerging field of research: the toxicology of plastics in seawater. The final report, entitled "Plastic Debris in the California Marine Ecosystem: A Summary of Current Research, Solution Efforts and Data Gaps," is now available.

For the Full Report and Related Materials:

For further details contact Emily Knight, Program Manager