The images in this article were taken pre-COVID-19.
How easy do you think it would be to stop using plastic in your daily life? From technology to cutlery – plastic is always at our fingertips. And our reliance on plastic has become cause for concern.
Plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose, and plastic pollution has become an issue all over the world. Think about the fact that most of the plastic produced since its discovery in 1852 is still present somewhere on the planet, and more and more plastic is still being made.
A huge amount of this plastic ends up in the ocean and affects life in the sea.
What is ocean pollution?
Ocean pollution refers to all of the waste products that find their way into the ocean – like plastic, glass, oil, and chemicals. Plastic pollution makes up around 60–95% of all the debris found in the ocean. The bulk of this pollution stems from single-use items.
As one of the least biodegradable materials in the world, plastic can stick around for a long time. During that time, it can pollute beaches, endanger marine life, and even affect our health.
How does plastic pollution affect the ocean?
The ocean covers more than 70% of the planet. It’s one of the world’s most valuable resources since it:
- is home to a diversity of marine life
- reduces the effects of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the air
- provides a significant amount of the protein that people eat
- offers employment opportunities.
Scientists estimate that 95% of the ocean has still not been explored, and 91% of ocean species have not yet been classified. So, besides the microscopic algae and gigantic blue whale we know of, ocean pollution is affecting a massive amount of other marine life, and may prevent us from finding out about new species.
Take a look at these seven facts about plastic pollution, and see why we need to keep an eye on the world’s oceans.
1) How much plastic is in the ocean?
Considering the size of the ocean, keeping track of the amount of plastic in it can be a difficult task. But, experts have estimated that eight million tons of the plastic produced each year goes on to pollute the ocean. Plastic is even expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050 if the current rate of plastic pollution persists.
And even though 2050 may seem far off, environmentalists believe that right now there is more microplastic – tiny pieces of plastic – in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way.
2) What are the biggest causes of plastic pollution? Facts about plastic pollution
According to an article by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), 80% of ocean pollution comes from land. This pollution stems mainly from human activity – like the plastic packaging we toss after eating takeout, or the hundreds of plastic toothbrushes we’ve thrown away once they’ve become worn out.
Communities living alongside coastlines are the biggest contributors to plastic pollution in the ocean, and they’re also the most affected by it. Coastal communities can take in these pollutants when they eat fish or other marine life that have ingested plastic in the ocean.
Even if plastic items are collected and transported to landfill sites, they can still form part of plastic pollution in the ocean. All it takes is a strong wind to blow the waste back into our rivers, lakes and oceans. In fact, major rivers around the world are estimated to carry between one and three million tons of plastic pollution to the ocean each year.
Another less noticeable way plastic enters the ocean is through microbeads. You’ll find these tiny pieces of plastic in all kinds of products, like face wash, shower gels and toothpaste. Many of these microbeads are too small to be filtered out by wastewater plants and end up making their way into the sea.
3) Which countries are most affected by plastic pollution?
California might be known for its iconic Hollywood sign, Disneyland and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, but just off its coast lies a collection of garbage that was estimated to be twice the size of Texas. Recent analysis has shown that this grouping of garbage, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is in fact 16 times bigger than initially estimated and growing rapidly in size.
And, there are other coastlines around the world where plastic pollution has become a significant concern too.
Led by Jenna Jambeck – an environmental engineer – researchers from the USA and Australia analysed plastic waste levels in the world’s oceans, and they were able to identify the countries that housed the most plastic pollution in their coastal waters.
China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka were at the top of the list. And it’s no coincidence that these countries are also some of the biggest producers of plastic products worldwide. Many of these countries also have less efficient waste-disposal systems than other countries around the world.
4) How do plastic straws contribute to ocean pollution? Facts about plastic straws
Over 500 million straws are used every day in the United States, and many of them end up as plastic pollution.
Why aren’t plastic straws recyclable?
Although plastic straws are technically recyclable – since they’re made of recyclable materials – their light weight makes them difficult to put through the recycling process.
When moving through the mechanical-recycling sorter, plastic straws drop through sorting screens and are mixed in with other materials. Since they’re too small to separate out, these straws end up contaminating recycling loads because they haven’t been processed adequately.
How do plastic straws end up in the ocean?
The most common way straws end up in the ocean is through littering. People often discard plastic straws on beaches or throw them out of boats and vehicles. The wind also blows straws out of trash cans.
Will compostable plastic straws help reduce waste in the oceans?
Unfortunately not. Compostable plastic straws are designed to break down in compost conditions, not in sea water. Paper straws are a far better alternative because they decompose more easily.
5) How does plastic bag pollution affect our oceans? Facts about plastic bag pollution
Whether it’s for picking up a few items from the grocery store, grabbing some Chinese takeout, or buying new clothes; almost all of us use plastic bags in our day-to-day lives.
While single-use disposable plastic bags are a convenient part of modern life, they aren’t good for the planet. The typical lifespan of a plastic bag is 12 minutes, and they’re often made using non-renewable materials that contribute to climate change. This means that they can make a big contribution to plastic pollution.
Americans use 100 billion plastic bags each year. If you had to tie them all together, they’d reach around the Earth’s equator 773 times. And our dependence on single-use plastic bags shows little sign of slowing down. In fact, more than one million bags are used every minute worldwide.
What happens to the plastic bags we throw away?
The world only recycles 1% of the plastic bags it produces. Unrecycled plastic bags are sent to landfill sites where they don’t break down. Instead, they release dangerous chemicals into the environment.
How do plastic bags affect the environment?
An early 2000s study found that 93% of US citizens tested positive for bisphenol A (BPA) – a chemical toxin found in plastic items such as bags, utensils and water bottles.
BPA can leach out of plastic bags, contaminate our water supplies, and pose a serious health hazard to all life on Earth over time. But plastic bag pollution also affects our quality of life in the short term. Buildups of plastic bags cause blockages in drainage systems, making them less efficient and creating an environment where harmful bacteria and pathogens can grow.
Discarded plastic bags can also form clumps in storm sewers, blocking the flow of water and increasing the risk of flooding.
And, in the oceans, many animals end up eating plastic bags by mistake.
On the island of Midway Atoll in the North Pacific Ocean – home to the largest albatross colony in the world – hundreds of birds have been found dead due to eating pieces of plastic bags. In 2015, National Geographic reported that plastic trash was found in the guts of 90% of seabirds, and this is expected to increase to 99% by 2050.
Plastic bags also ruin the appearance of the environment, which is not something to be taken lightly.
The Earth’s natural habitats and green spaces in our cities have numerous benefits for human beings. Studies have shown that being in healthy natural environments can improve our mood, behaviour and productivity. But when these spaces become littered with plastic bags, our quality of life takes a knock.
6) How does plastic pollution affect animals?
Plastic bags aren’t the only thing hurting wildlife populations around the world.
Microplastics, abandoned fishing gear and other plastic pollution has a massive impact on the health of ecosystems.
In the ocean, small fish eat tiny pieces of plastic, causing plastic pollution to enter the food chain. When larger fish feed on these smaller species, it passes on the problem until this plastic eventually lands up on our dinner plates.
The pieces of plastic inside animals’ stomachs don’t leave room for actual food. In a February 2018 autopsy of a beached whale, scientists found 20 square feet of single-use plastic shopping bags inside its stomach.
Marine animals often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. Researchers from the University of Queensland estimate that more than 50% of sea turtles have consumed plastic debris. The result is that more than 100,000 sea turtles die from plastic pollution each year.
How does ghost gear affect marine life?
Ghost gear is abandoned or lost fishing equipment. Nets and other items can easily entangle marine life – like whales, dolphins and seals. This can injure marine animals or even cause them to drown.
The World Animal Protection organisation estimates that sea life is being affected by 640,000 tons of ghost gear every year. As this equipment floats around in the ocean, it slowly breaks down into microplastics. As a result, more animals are prone to plastic poisoning and ingesting these small amounts of plastic by mistake.
7) How do plastic bottles have an impact in the ocean? Facts about plastic bottle pollution
Every minute around one million plastic bottles are purchased across the globe. While most plastic bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate – a recyclable substance – the huge demand for plastic bottles globally means that it isn’t easy making sure that all plastic bottles are recycled.
Of the 480 billion drinking bottles sold in 2016, only 7% were collected and reused. According to Euromonitor International’s Global Trends in Packaging report, during the year 2021 more than 580 billion plastic drinking bottles are expected to be manufactured and sold.
If you had to place all those bottles end to end, it would extend halfway to the sun.
What you can do to reduce plastic pollution
The best way to protect the oceans, wildlife, our health and the environment is to keep as much plastic as possible out of the waste stream.
It might seem like a mammoth task trying to use less or no plastic, but there are many small things that you can do to make a positive impact when it comes to reducing plastic pollution.
Cut down on your single-use plastic products
Buy reusable bags for your shopping or reuse your plastic bags as many times as you can. Get into the habit of saying no to plastic bags at the till, and keeping your own bags in your handbag or car.
And there are other areas you could focus on too. Have you ever thought about how many shampoo and conditioner bottles you go through in a year? What about in your lifetime?
Nip your reliance on plastic in the bud by using shampoo and conditioner bars.
Buy a steel, glass or silicone straw
Next time you buy a drink at your favourite restaurant or cafe, don’t ask for a straw. Instead, buy a couple of steel, glass or silicone straws and keep one in your handbag.
It’s a small lifestyle change that makes a tangible difference. With more and more people choosing to go strawless, many retailers have started listening to their consumers. Woolworths, a multinational retail company, opted to phase out single-use plastics in their stores around the world.
Opt for a reusable water bottle
Cut down on the 20 billion plastic bottles tossed into the trash each year by carrying a reusable bottle. Just make sure the bottle is BPA-free and top up as you go.
If you live in a country that doesn’t have good quality local tap water, look for a bottle that has a built-in filter. Some places in the world, like Bali and Thailand, have clean-water stations for the public to use. For a few coins, you can fill up without contributing to the plastic pollution problem in these countries.
Further reading: How to reduce your plastic consumption in 24 hours.
Join a marine conservation project
If you want to do more for the environment than just making a few lifestyle changes, consider volunteering on a marine conservation project.
Take a look at our marine conservation projects that are committed to raising awareness about plastic pollution, and contributing towards developing sustainable solutions.