HD close up picture of coral reef. bright orange and blue

How polluted are the oceans? the truth about ocean pollution.

The earth’s oceans cover more than 70% of the planet. They are one of, if not the, most valuable resources on earth. They govern the weather, clean the air, help feed the world and provide a living for millions. It comes a no surprise that 40% of all people on earth live within 100km of the coast. But we’re not doing a very good job of protecting them. The expression goes “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” but humans are not listening. We’re drowning marine ecosystems in waste, dumping oil and waste into the oceans, and even carbon emissions are playing a role in polluting the oceans.

Small child walking through piles of garbage. So much garbage on the ground it looks like a landfill

The Biggest Contributor to Ocean Pollution

The biggest contributor to ocean pollution is from land-based activities. Over 80% of pollution to marine life comes from the waste we produce on land. Most of the waste we produce on land enters the oceans either through deliberate dumping or run-off from through drains and rivers.

Garbage in The Oceans

Solid garbage makes its way to the ocean one way or another. Everything from plastic bags to shoes can find its way to the ocean if not disposed of correctly.

The problem with plastic specifically is that it decomposes extremely slow. Sea life can mistake plastic bags and other garbage for food. Plastic bags have been found blocking the breathing passages and stomachs of many marine species, including seals, dolphins, whales, and turtles. Plastic six-pack rings for drink bottles and straws can also choke marine animals.

This garbage can also make its way back to shores and beaches, where it pollutes coastal habitats.

The great pacific garbage patch

map of the world with the great pacific garbage patch location circled
great pacific garbage patch location

The great pacific garbage patch is the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world. It is located between Hawaii & California where currents keep it from coming back to shore. The garbage patch has an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometres, an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France. Currently, the garbage patch is estimated to be 1.8 trillion plastic pieces and 80,000 tonnes… That’s a lot of garbage. It is estimated that 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic are entering the ocean each year from rivers. More than half of that garbage is less dense than water meaning it will not sink once it enters the ocean.

Although it’s a terrible statistic, and it sucks to see how much garbage is actually entering the ocean, there is a bright side. Since most of this garbage is floating or close to the surface it makes cleanup a little bit easier.  

In October 2018, the Ocean Cleanup Project launched its trash-collection device, named ‘Wilson.’ The system was a 2,000-foot U-shaped barrier with a long skirt dangling below. It was meant to float along the ocean’s surface, trapping plastic while avoiding harm to marine life. Although ‘Wilson’ encountered problems, these are steps in the right direction toward cleaning up the ocean.

Oil in The Oceans

underwater image of coral reef. Different colored reef and fish everywhere

Oil spills like the BP incident in 2010 made national news headlines for weeks, followed by oil-covered wildlife. But spills like these make up a small amount of oil in the oceans. Most of the oil in the oceans comes from natural seeps of oil underneath the Earth’s surface. These seeps account for 60 percent of the estimated total load in North American waters and 40 percent worldwide, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

Another source of oil entering the oceans is by cars and trucks leaking oil onto the roads. Then when it rains, the oil on the roads washes away and finds its way to the ocean. Although this might now seem like much it adds up over time. When you have over 1 billion cars on the road each year this means a substantial amount of oil leakage. That figure does not even include off-road vehicles or heavy construction equipment.

And finally, oil enters the oceans by boats, jet skis, and other water vehicles. Sometimes people operating these vehicles spill oil into the oceans. Similar to land vehicles, this may not seem like very much oil but it adds up over time.

Agriculture’s Role in The Pollution Our Oceans

Anything that isn’t grown organically is being sprayed with pesticides and chemicals. When it rains, those chemicals make their way to the lakes and oceans. The scary part about this is that even crops grown organically are going to need water, and that water is most likely going to be contaminated.

Researchers have long suspected that fertilizer runoff from big farms can trigger sudden explosions of marine algae capable of disrupting ocean ecosystems and even producing “dead zones” in the sea

Sewage in The Oceans

Coral reef with 2 clown fish and a tang fish swimming around

Sewage originates primarily from domestic, commercial, and industrial sources. In many developed countries, these wastes are typically delivered either to septic systems or to centralized sewage treatment facilities. In both methods, sewage is treated before being discharged, either underground or to receiving surface-water bodies, typically a stream, river, or coastal outlet.

Although sewage treatment facilities are designed to treat and accommodate sewage from that region or area, partly treated or sometimes even untreated sewage is discharged. This can be caused by facilities being overwhelmed by heavy rainfall events. There can also be untreated discharge from malfunctions or outdated equipment at the treatment facility. Some countries still dump untreated sewage directly into the oceans.

Toxic Chemicals in The Oceans

I mentioned earlier that when farmers spray their plants with pesticides these chemicals find their way to oceans and lakes through the watershed. But, these aren’t the only chemicals that find their way to the ocean.

Radioactive waste is also dumped into the oceans. The difference between industrial waste and nuclear waste is that nuclear waste usually remains radioactive for decades. The protocol for disposing of nuclear waste involves special treatment by keeping it in concrete drums so that it doesn’t spread when it hits the ocean floor. The high point of nuclear waste dumping was in 1954 and 1962, but this nuclear waste only accounts for 1% of the total TBq that has been dumped in the ocean. The concentration of radioactive waste in the concrete drums varies as does the danger to marine life and humans.

There also is (still to this day) nuclear waste entering the ocean through the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., the operator of the Fukushima complex, has built a seawall aimed at preventing contaminated water from entering the ocean.

Ocean Pollution Facts

large group of small fish swimming through a coral reef
  • In several parts of the world including the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea, pollution has created enormous dead zones
  • The biggest source of ocean pollutions comes directly from the land.
  • One million sea birds are killed each year directly from pollution.
  • One hundred thousand sea mammals are killed directly from ocean pollution.
  • Toxic metals can destroy the biochemistry, behaviour, reproduction, and growth in marine life
  • The truth is that billions of tons of litter end up in the ocean each year, and it is substantially more than the 250 million tons of trash generated. It’s not just garbage!
  • Ocean pollution can directly affect humans by fish being contaminated with chemicals and plastic. When humans eat contaminated seafood it can cause serious health problems.

Ocean Pollution Myths

Crowd at climate change protest. there is no planet b sign being help up by protestor
global warming Protest – 2017
  • There is one simple solution to solve all of the ocean pollution problems.

The ocean pollution problem is complicated. There is no simple ban, fee, or any other piece of legislation that can fix this. Small steps in the right direction will make an impact in the long term.

  • Ocean plastics are not a problem

Ocean plastics are a huge issue. This is going to affect people for the next couple of decades.

  • Plastic breaks down

Plastic does not break down, it breaks up. It takes an extremely long time to decompose which is what makes it particularly dangerous. Ocean plastics will break down into microplastics that can harm sea life and humans.

  • The great pacific garbage patch is a floating island of garbage

The great pacific garbage patch is not an island of floating garbage. It is more of a plastic soup of microplastics.

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