The Plastic Waste Living 11 Kilometres Under the Ocean’s Surface

 Did you know, more humans have set foot on the moon’s cratered surface than have reached the deepest point of our seas? We’ve all heard of the space race but where has the deep-sea dash been? 12 astronauts have taken their first bounding steps onto the moon yet only three divers have reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on Earth. For the latest and record-breaking deep-sea explorer Victor Vescovo, touching the bottom of this famous ocean trench, almost 11 kilometres below the surface, must have been a tremendous feeling as previously unseen and now affectionately named ‘sea-pigs’ floated around him. Yet what he didn’t expect to see was our never-ending blight of plastic pollution. Shopping bags glided past his submarine whilst sweet wrappers hid themselves amongst the seabed. Has our plastic waste really reached the most isolated place on earth? A place where only three humans out of our 7.5 billion population have reached?

Sadly, it seems the answer is yes. Our undiscovered deep-sea environment appears to be acting as a sink for our plastic castaways. Unlike littered rivers and coastlines, there is no rain, gushing water or tide to sweep our clutter somewhere else; once at the bottom of the ocean there is simply no place left to go.

While many could compete for the title of most famous piece of ocean plastic, it seems the top spot may be claimed by the almost unscathed plastic bag found nestled on the seabed 11 kilometres from the surface, somehow surviving incredible pressure, cold temperatures and ocean predators. A new database has been complied containing photos and videos collected within the last 30 years from over 5,000 deep sea dives. These photos have been painstakingly analysed for signs of marine debris and while some wood, rubber and cloth were identified, plastic yet again topped the charts. Astonishingly, 89% of the plastic found in our deep-sea trenches was single use. Can this statistic finally show the true damage of our takeaway coffees, quick supermarket sandwiches and cheap drinks bottles?

In 17% of the photos showing plastic, the rubbish was actually interacting with marine life by, for example, entangling creatures in our unknown depths. While the dark bottom of the ocean may sound a pretty bleak and barren place to be, it is actually home to jellyfish, squid, octopus and a whole hoard of weird, wacky creatures, some looking like they have swum straight off the pages of an overly imaginative cartoon strip. While research in this part of our oceans is complicated, scientists have collected some samples of shrimp from six deep ocean trenches, all of which have ingested at least one piece of microplastic which could play toxic havoc on their bodies. It seems there really are no marine ecosystems left untouched by our overflowing landfills. Our oceans are so poorly understood in relation to the land that over 2,000 new marine species are newly discovered each year, yet increasingly many of these have munched on microplastic, meaning we have never witnessed some of these millennia-old critters in their uncontaminated state.

You might be thinking that all this is very upsetting news but does it really impact me? For scientists, the deep is a region of discovery and excitement, with almost each trip returning with a new species or even sometimes a sighting of a new ecosystem such as hydrothermal vents, a sort of deep-sea fountain of boiling water. On dark ocean missions, researchers have also discovered archaea, an ancient form of life which is most closely related to the first ever life on Earth. Yet all these species could potentially provide more than just interesting facts; they could be essential cures for some of our pressing medical burdens while also being a crucial base of the marine food chain which feeds our much loved fish stocks. Deep sea creatures also absorb our carbon dioxide and its even more powerful cousin, methane, keeping greenhouse gases firmly away from the sea surface and our atmosphere, allowing us to prolong or maybe even reduce the effects of climate change. Further understanding of the sea floor could, in the future, even allow us to better predict earthquakes and tsunamis.

While all this talk of the unreachable deep-sea can seem overwhelming, the simple fact is that our consumption is becoming so excessive that waste spilling off the land is not only reaching our beautiful shallow coastal waters but also the most remote places on our planet. With the seabed acting as a dead end for debris and its isolation making clean ups impossible, the solution really lies with us. If each of us reduces the unnecessary plastic we use, take part in a beach clean every now and again, no matter how small, and if we all bring our voices together to influence the large corporate and government players, then we can stop any more pollution flooding into our undiscovered, mystical oceans. For ideas on how you can curb your own use of plastic, see our earlier three-part blog guide to shopping sustainably on our ‘news’ page.

By Neve McCracken-Heywood

Rory Sinclair