According to the UN Environment Programme, between 60-80% of the trash in the ocean is plastic. In 1950, 1.7 million tons of plastic were made annually. Today, that number has grown to 300 million tons per year. We add the equivalent of 57,000 blue whales worth of plastic to the ocean every year. This is the equivalent of dumping one garbage truck of plastic every minute into the ocean. If current growth continues unchecked, this will increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050. Predictions vary, but by 2050, plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish.
In fact, there is so much trash in the ocean that currents have formed giant floating garbage patches. There are five around the world; the largest covers an area twice the size of Texas (USA). The problem is that plastics do not decompose. At least not in our lifetime. Plastics take hundreds of years to break down, and when they do they release toxic chemicals into the environment. There is no good news.
As bad as this is, the plastic we cannot see might be the bigger problem. Instead of breaking down in the water, through sun exposure and wave action, they break up into tiny particles, microplastics. They can be the size of a grain of rice or smaller than a particle of dust. These microplastics are everywhere. In the ocean they find their way into the food chain as microplastics are ingested by small fish, which are eaten by big fish, and the cycle continues until humans are eating plastic particles.
Plastic pollution is everywhere in the marine environment; from the bottles floating on the surface to the plastic bags that have been found at the depths of the Mariana Trench. Plastic in the ocean has increased tenfold since 1980, affecting hundreds of species including sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals. Sadly, the effects of plastic on the ocean are as vast and varied as the ocean itself.
Plastic, especially plastic bags, floating in the ocean can easily be mistaken for prey like jellyfish or squid. Seabirds, whales, fish, and turtles mistake plastic waste, and fill their stomachs. Once their bellies are full of material that has no nutritional value and doesn’t break down, they die of starvation as they do not feel the urge to eat.
Microplastics are also a problem. They are ingested, intentional, or unintentionally and the small plastic particles can get stuck in various parts of the body causing physical injuries. Moreover, as the microplastics are digested, they release harmful chemicals into the animal making them more susceptible to disease and other issues.
All of the plastic floating freely in the ocean poses an entanglement risk to wildlife. From a plastic bag wrapped around a flipper to an entire animal being caught in a huge fishing net, the risks are pervasive. Once entangled, marine life that needs to breathe at the surface or continue moving to absorb oxygen often suffocate or drown. Those that don’t die often have physical trauma or loss of a limb which leads to infection. Some marine animals have continued to live with fishing line or other plastic items wrapped around their body. As the animal grows, the line digs deeper and deeper into their flesh causing disfigurement, infections or death
Immobile animals are not immune to the negative effects of plastic. Corals can be draped in plastic which suffocates the animal, cutting it off from sunlight and oxygen, both of which are essential to sustain life.
More directly, plastic bags or lines can wrap around branching or other oddly shaped coral. When currents change or wave action pulls the bag, the fragile coral is broken off.
Ocean plastics pollution also spreads disease. Studies have shown that disease rates in coral that has been exposed to plastic debris increase by 80%! Microplastics also can be covered in microorganisms, environmental toxins or other health hazards.
Watch this video about the problems with plastic.
On average, 80% of ocean plastic comes from land-based sources. This includes run-off from rivers that drain into the ocean. Fisheries, aquaculture, and commercial shipping, fishing, and tourist vessels contribute the rest. All of us, no matter where we live, are complicit in the ocean plastic pollution problem. Even if you live hundreds of miles from the coast, the plastic you throw away could make its way into the sea.
Plastic Doesn’t Decompose
The biggest threat is that plastic does not decompose. All plastic that has ever been produced and has ended up in the environment is still present there in one form or another. Until we fully understand and accept this concept, we will continue to make the problem worse. Out of sight, out of mind has to stop. Just because it isn’t in front of us, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Litter dropped on the street doesn’t stay there. Rainwater and wind carries plastic waste into streams and rivers, and through drains. Drains eventually lead to the ocean.
The convenience that plastics offer leads to a throw-away culture. Single-use plastics account for 40 percent of the plastic produced every year. Many of these products, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, have a lifespan of mere minutes to hours, yet they persist in the environment for hundreds of years. Since these plastics do not break-down, it is up to us to stop creating them.
Many products we use daily are flushed down toilets: wet wipes, cotton buds and sanitary products. In addition, microfibres are released into waterways when we wash our clothes in the washing machine. They are too small to be filtered out by waste water plants and end up being consumed by small marine species, eventually even ending up in our food chain. Speaking of small, microbeads in cosmetic and cleaning products get washed down the sink and out into our oceans.
In some developing countries garbage collection systems are often inefficient or nonexistent. With nowhere to dispose of plastic waste, it ends up in the environment and often makes its way to the ocean.
The Recycling Myth
Many people happily use plastic knowing that it will be recycled so they are doing no harm. In reality, just eight percent of plastic is actually recycled. Another 16 percent is incinerated. The vast majority of plastic (remaining 76%) ends up in landfills. While not all plastic can be recycled, a lot more could be recycled than is. The problem is that new plastic is cheaper to make than recycling used plastic.
What plastic is recyclable and how to do it varies widely by region. The best choice, use less and reuse as much as possible.
On a daily basis, think about everything you use. Think about the waste you generate. Think about the footprint you leave on the planet. If we all make daily decisions with the planet in mind, we are off to a good start!
Focus on Reducing and Reusing
A number of organizations are spreading the word about plastic pollution and possible solutions. Conservation groups continue to create inventive solutions to the pervasive plastic problem. They should be supported. But, we should all accept our role in creating and sustaining this problem and make personal changes urgently.
There continue to be successes in the fight against plastic pollution. But until we all decide to accept our role in this society of convenience and be accountable for it, the problem will persist. An increasing number of communities, states, and countries have enacted laws against single use plastic straws, bags, and bottles. All of this helps. But the problem is much bigger. With the worldwide pandemic, many of these regulations were rolled back. It remains to be seen how society will treat single use plastic in the post-pandemic age.
That said, there are groups working to reduce the amount of plastic entering our ocean. These worthy causes inspire hope and deserve our support.
Ocean Friendly Restaurants, Surfrider
This grassroots organization, founded by ocean-loving surfers, continues to inspire with creative ways to protect the ocean. The Ocean Friendly Restaurants program recognizes restaurants that cut out single-use plastic. They have 7 criteria required to qualify (no straws, no plastic takeaway, etc) and an additional 8 items optional actions that can make a restaurant “platinum.” They are spreading awareness and using consumer power to make change.
Dive Against Debris, Project AWARE
Dive Against Debris is a marine clean-up project founded by divers, for divers. The first international marine debris clean up and tracking program. Started in 2011, Dive Against Debris engages divers to collect marine trash on their dives. Any debris collected is then cataloged and stored in a worldwide database used to encourage changes in recycling, waste management, and plastic use.
Pacific Garbage Patch Clean Up, Ocean Voyages
Ocean Voyages uses commercial fishing equipment to collect debris, especially huge abandoned fishing nets, from the ocean. Using GPS tracking devices, in 2020, they set a record with 340,000 pounds of plastic waste removed on their extended trash-collecting voyage into the Pacific. Now, they have committed to collecting 1 million pounds of plastic from the sea!
Upcycling Plastic Fishing Nets, Net-Works
A beautiful example of taking trash and turning it into treasure! Net-Works is a collaboration between the London Zoological Society and Interface, Inc., a carpet manufacturer. They collect discarded plastic filament fishing nets from the Philippines and Cameroon, and use the material to create carpet tiles. The more plastic we reuse, the less pollutes our planet.