More than 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the mid-20th century, and at least 60 percent of that plastic has ended up in either ocean.
In just a few decades, the increasing amounts of waste have created huge, spiraling “eddies” of plastic waste that measure hundreds of thousands of square kilometers in the open sea.
New research has now shown that these plastic eddies are home to a surprising variety of plants and animals normally associated with coastal waters rather than the remote open ocean.
The scientists studying this phenomenon have warned that this rapid change could turn stable ecosystems upside down for millennia.
Scientists studied the species that live among the plastic garbage in the subtropical eddy of the North Pacific, better known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”.
After collecting and analyzing more than 100 tons of plastic, they discovered coastal species like anemones, hydroids, and shrimp-like amphipods that not only survive but also thrive on marine plastic hundreds of miles from their usual coastal environment.
“The problems with plastic go beyond ingestion and entanglement,” said Linsey Haram, lead research author and former postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (Serc) in Maryland, USA.
“It offers opportunities for the biogeography of coastal species to expand far beyond what we previously thought possible.”
The world now has at least five giant plastic-contaminated eddies, or “garbage spots”, spiraling around its oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii contains the most floating plastic an estimated 79,000 tons of plastic Float in a region over 610,000 square miles.
For marine researchers, the existence of a new community of open sea creatures is a complete paradigm shift.
“The open ocean has previously not been habitable for coastal organisms,” said Greg Ruiz, senior scientist at the Serc who heads the Marine Invasion Lab where Dr. Haram worked.
He said this was “partly because of the habitat restriction, there was no plastic there in the past, and partly, as we thought, because it was a food desert.”
But plastic waste is now a habitat for these species, and somehow these once coastal dwellers find food on the high seas.
Dr. Ruiz said scientists are still speculating exactly how it will help feed these creatures, suggesting that food may drift into existing productivity hotspots in the eddy, or that the plastic itself is acting like a reef, attracting more food sources.
A key concern is the impact that the new types of plastic rafting could have on the marine environment in which they are now found.
The open sea already has many native species of its own that are already adapted to colonizing flotsam.
The scientists said “the arrival of new coastal neighbors could disrupt marine ecosystems that have remained undisturbed for millennia”.
Dr. Haram said, “Coastal species compete directly with these oceanic rafters.
“You are competing for the place. They compete for resources. And these interactions are very poorly understood. “
The authors said that improving our understanding of the impacts on ecosystems becomes increasingly important as humanity’s burden on nature grows.
Cumulative global plastic waste could reach over 25 billion tons by 2050, and with more violent and frequent storms on the horizon caused by the worsening climate crisis, the authors believe more plastic will be thrown into the ocean.
“Coastal rafter colonies on the high seas are likely only to grow,” they said, and this side effect of plastic pollution could “soon change life on land and in the sea.”
The research comes as a new figures from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine warns that the US has the highest amount of plastic waste per capita in the world. In 2016 the country produced 42 million tons of plastic waste, which corresponds to around 130 kg per person per year.
The research is published in the journal Nature communication.