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Glossary

Below is a list of helpful terms to help you better understand plastic pollution and the ocean!


Accumulation: The gradual build up of a material. Plastic can accumulate on beaches and on the seafloor, however, it is unknown whether is can accumulate inside organisms like fish and whales. This is called bioaccumulation.

Bioavailable: When a material (either natural or un-natural) is available to be eaten by an animal.

Biodegrade: When a material is metabolized by bacteria or other living organisms, breaking it down naturally into simpler structures that can be re-incorporated into natural systems.

Biofouling: The process by which microorganisms such as algae attach to the surface of plastic. Biofouling can make a piece of plastic heavier, causing it to sink and become more bioavailable to a variety of species

Fragmentation: The breaking apart of plastic pieces, usually due to physical or chemical weathering

Ingestion: The process of taking a liquid, food item or other material into the body through swallowing

Microplastics: plastic fragments <5mm in diameter. Essentially any fragment that is the size of a grain of rice or smaller.

Ocean gyre: a large system of ocean currents that converge together and are driven by the earth’s rotation and wind patterns. There are five main gyres in the ocean.

Photodegradation: The alteration of materials by light. As plastic is exposed to sunlight, the surface of it begins to break apart more easily

Polymer: Can be synthetic or natural. All plastics are polymers, but not all polymers are plastic. Molecules called monomers bond together into long chains to form polymers. Naturally occurring polymers can include silk, wool and DNA and other proteins. Synthetic polymers can include plastics like nylon, polyester, teflon, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Transport & Fate (of pollutants, microplastics): This is a term commonly used by microplastic and marine debris researchers, as well as toxicologists who study other pollutants. Transport is the process of movement— how plastic can move around the ocean, land or even through organisms. Researchers use the word fate to describe where microplastics eventually end up. For example, microplastics are transported through ocean currents and their eventual fate could be the ocean floor.

Weathering: a physical or chemical process that plastic goes through in the ocean or on land. Examples of physical weathering include wave action, and sand abrasion. An example of chemical weathering is photodegradation.