Plastic is the most prevalent type of marine debris found in our oceans. It includes a range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that contain polymers.
Plastics gained popularity because of their flexibility and how convenient they are to use. Plastics were thought to solve the waste problem because they are recyclable and reusable.
However, while plastics are recyclable, only about 9% of plastic waste is properly recycled. The rest of the unrecycled plastic finds its way to landfills, oceans, rivers, or other places on earth.
The following will highlight and tell you everything you need to know about plastic pollution in the ocean.
What is Plastic Pollution?
Plastic pollution is the accumulation of synthetic plastic products in the natural environment (e.g. ocean, land, or other waterways).
Plastic pollution can create several problems for wildlife, plants, and humans, as well as the environment. For example, it often kills plant life, poses dangers to wildlife, and impacts habitats and ecosystems.
Plastic pollution was first identified in the ocean by scientists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Since that time, plastic pollution in the ocean has grown in scale and become one of the most pressing environmental issues.
15 Facts You Need to Know About Plastic Pollution
- 80% of plastic in the ocean is estimated to come from land-based sources, while the remaining 20% comes from boats and other marine sources.
- About 70% of marine debris sinks to the bottom of the ocean.
- At least 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, which is equivalent to setting five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of the coastline around the world.
- Plastic pollution makes up 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments.
- Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been produced in the last 15 years.
- Over 99% of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal (non-renewable resources).
- By 2050, the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption.
- Plastics contain additives that make them strong, flexible and durable, which can extend the life of the product and can take over 400 years to break down.
- In 2014, it was estimated that at least 5.25 trillion individual plastic particles (269,000 tons) were floating on or near the surface.
- A 2021 study determined that 44% of plastic debris in rivers and oceans, and on shorelines, was composed of bags, bottles, and items associated with takeout meals.
- Only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled, 12% has been incinerated and the remaining 79% ended up in landfills, dumps, or in the natural environment.
- Nearly 7,000 species of marine wildlife have been affected by plastic pollution.
- One million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute.
- 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year.
- Half of all plastic that is produced is specifically designed to be used only once and then thrown away.
The Impact of Plastic Pollution on the Ocean
Plastics are persistent polluters because of their durability and long-lasting properties. While plastics are designed to be recycled and reused, only about 9% of plastic waste is properly disposed of and recycled.
Impacts of Plastic Pollution on the Environment
Floating plastic debris is the most abundant marine litter circulating in our oceans. The production of plastic and its consumption contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, devalues marine ecosystems, and impacts wildlife and their ecosystems.
Floating plastics can contribute to the spread of invasive marine organisms and other bacteria, which disrupt ecosystems. Floating plastic waste has accumulated in five subtropical gyres that cover 40% of the world’s oceans.
Plastic waste can persist in the environment for centuries, posing significant risks to the environment.
Gyres are circulating patterns of ocean currents that produce still waters where plastic accumulates and forms garbage patches.
In the mid-latitudes, these gyres include the North and South Pacific Subtropical Gyres, where the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can be found.
The “garbage patch” is a zone with high concentrations of plastic waste that continuously circulates near the ocean surface. This has warranted extensive media coverage and publicity compared to the other gyres.
The other gyres are the North and South Atlantic Subtropical Gyres and the Indian Ocean Subtropical Gyre.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch exists because much of the plastic is not biodegradable and takes hundreds of years to break down. However, they do not disappear, the plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, which are still very much present.
Plastics pose both physical and chemical threats to wildlife and marine ecosystems. Plastic pollution can cause lacerations, infections, reduced ability to swim because of entanglement, and internal injuries.
Plastic pollution has direct and deadly effects on wildlife, including:
Marine wildlife, such as seabirds, whales, fish, and turtles, often mistake plastic waste for prey or accidentally ingest plastics. Nearly every species of seabird, from all parts of the world, are found to be ingesting plastics.
The ingestion of plastics tricks wildlife into feeling full and as a result most die of starvation. Plastics can also block the digestive tract or pierce organs, causing death.
Millions of animals are killed by plastics every year, from birds to fish and other marine animals. Most deaths occur because of suffocation, entanglement, or starvation.
Seals, whales, and turtles, as well as other animals, have been known to be strangled by abandoned fishing gear and discarded six-pack rings, as well as other plastic waste.
Plastics have also been consumed by land animals, including elephants, hyenas, tigers, and zebras, which sometimes have resulted in death.
Research has found that plastics damage the liver and cells, disrupt reproductive systems, and lead to the production of few eggs (e.g. oysters).
Plastics are found everywhere, especially microplastics. Research shows that invisible plastics have been identified in common resources, such as tap water, beer, and salt.
The chemicals used during the production of plastic materials are known to be carcinogenic and to interfere with the body’s endocrine system. This can cause health issues related to developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune disorders in humans and wildlife.
Plastics also make their way up the food chain, meaning they are in the food we eat. For example, microplastics injected by fish are then ingested by humans who consume those fish, which is commonly referred to as bioaccumulation.
Microplastics have been found in over 100 aquatic species, including fish, shrimp, and mussels.
Plastic pollution is a global problem with developing countries struggling with inefficient or non-existent garbage collection and developed countries faced with low recycling rates.
How Does Plastic End Up in the Ocean?
Plastics have become a major contributor to ocean pollution. These plastics originate from human use, so how does it end up in the ocean?
The ocean is downstream from nearly every terrestrial location and for that reason, plastic waste generated on land slowly finds its way there. Rivers serve as direct channels that carry trash from cities across the world to marine environments.
Did you know that 10 rivers alone carry over 90% of the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans? Those 10 rivers include:
- Chang Jiang (Yangzte River) – 1.5 million tons
- Indus – 160,000 tons
- Huang He (Yellow River) – 120,000 tons
- Hai He – 92,000 tons
- Nile – 85,000 tons
- Meghna, Brahmaputra, Ganges – 73,000 tons
- Zhujiang (Pearl River) – 53,000 tons
- Amur – 38,000 tons
- Niger – 35,000 tons
- Mekong – 33,000 tons
What are Microplastics?
Microplastics are small plastic pieces that have broken down and are less than five millimeters long.
They come from a variety of sources, including larger plastic products. Microplastics pose significant problems for the environment and marine wildlife. For example, marine life and wildlife often mistake microplastics for food because of their size.
The ingestion of microplastics can block the gastrointestinal tract or trick wildlife into thinking they are not hungry, leading to starvation.
What are Microbeads?
Microbeads are tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic that are added to health and beauty products, such as face cleansers and toothpaste. Microbeads are non-biodegradable and take a very long time to break down.
Because of their small size, it is impossible to filter them out of the water systems and eliminate them from the environment. As a result, they remain in the environment almost indefinitely and are often consumed by wildlife accidentally.
History and Future of Plastics
The production of plastic products enhanced after the Second World War with mass-production speeding up in the 1960s and 1970s.
Consumers and manufacturers alike became addicted to plastic products because they are cheap, versatile, sanitary, and easy to manufacture in many different forms.
Plastic quickly began replacing traditional materials and took over the consumer market.
Plastics Key Milestones
- 1885 – an invention by Alexander Parkes called Parkesine, now referred to as celluloid
- 1838-1872 – invention of polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
- 1907 – the invention of the first real synthetic, mass-produced plastic by Leo Baekeland
While the pollution associated with plastics manufacturing and disposal is largely negative. Plastics have some positive effects. They revolutionized many sectors and industries, such as medicine.
Plastics led to the development of life-saving devices, made space travel possible, lightened cars and jets, and saved lives with helmets, incubators, and other equipment.
Timeline of Plastics Use
- 1950 to 1970: only a small amount of plastic was produced and plastic waste was manageable
- The 1990s: in only two decades, plastic waste generation tripled because of increased plastic pollution
- The 2000s: plastic waste rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years
Since the 1950s, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than any other material. Production increased from 2.3 million tonnes in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015. The production and manufacturing of plastics are expected to double by 2050.
As the production of plastics evolved, they are now largely manufactured for single-use purposes. That means many plastic products, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, have a lifespan of minutes to hours, yet they persist in the environment for hundreds of years.
Plastics are now a part of our day-to-day life. The convenience of plastic has led to a throw-away culture.
Single-use plastics account for 40% of all plastics produced annually. It is estimated that we now produce over 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, which is equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.
Plastics’ variability, flexibility, and convenience have led to overuse and dependence on single-use or disposal plastic.
The properties that make plastic so desirable (durability and resistance), also make them nearly impossible for nature to completely break down. That means they never fully disappear, they just keep getting smaller and smaller.
As long as plastics are still present, they will continue to cause harm to the environment, wildlife and marine animals, and humans.
Related content: Things You Can Do to Help Save the Ocean
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