Plastic in the ocean is becoming a global crisis. As of 2016, we produce about 335 million metric tons of plastic every year. More garbage and specifically plastic is finding it’s a way to the oceans. But ut how did we get to this point? And how is so much plastic finding its way to the oceans?
Where Does Ocean Plastic Come From?
80% of the plastic in the ocean is from land-based activities. There are really only two ways that plastic enters the oceans. Either through deliberate dumping or from run-off through drains and rivers.
Plastic that isn’t recycled can sometimes end up in the oceans. When garbage is being transported, plastic can often fly away since its so lightweight. Then, when it rains this plastic can end up in a drain or river which leads to the ocean. Next time you’re driving in a populated area look around at the edge of the roads. You’ll most likely see all kinds of plastic and garbage. If no one picks this garbage up, it can find it’s a way to a river or a drain and eventually the ocean.
Deliberate dumping doesn’t necessarily mean dumping trash directly into the ocean, although this does happen sadly. When people throw trash on the side of the road, this garbage doesn’t stay there. Something that happens quite often is that an animal will rip into the garbage bag. Then, since the garbage is spread all over the ground, the wind or rain can take it away. Never throw your garbage on the side of a road.
Garbage Patches in the Ocean
You’ve probably heard of “the great Pacific garbage patch.” But as it turns out, this is not the only garbage patch in the ocean. There are five offshore accumulation zones in the world’s oceans. These garbage patches are mostly made up of plastics. Since plastic is (most of the time) less dense than water meaning it will not sink. Currents keep this plastic from coming back to shore.
These garbage patches are not a big floating island of garbage. Since the plastic has been beaten up by currents, the sun, and even marine life, it turns into what is known as “microplastics.” This makes cleanup a lot more difficult. The garbage patches are more like plastic soup. As more and more plastics are discarded into the environment, microplastic concentration in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will only continue to increase.
The great pacific garbage patch is estimated to be 1.6 million square kilometres. That’s twice the size of Texas.
How Much Plastic is in the Ocean?
Currently, it is estimated that there is 150 million metric tons of plastic that currently circulate the oceans. On top of that, it is estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans every year. To put this in perspective, that is like dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean about 1,500 times a day.
It gets worse. Plastic production and consumption are predicted to double over the next 10 years. If we don’t take major strides to stop plastics from entering the oceans we could expect to see 250 million metric tons of plastic in the ocean by 2030.
Plastic in the Ocean Does not Decompose
it is estimated that plastic can take 500-1,000 years to decompose in a landfill. The most common type of plastic used today is polyethylene, a petroleum-based polymer that doesn’t biodegrade. Instead, this type of plastic decomposes as a result of exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, a process called photodegradation.
But, there is some debate about this. Some scientists argue that plastic never actually decomposes. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller plastic pieces.
How Plastic in the Ocean Affects Marine Life
800 species worldwide are affected by marine debris, and as much as 80 percent of that litter is plastic. It is estimated that up to 1 million sea birds are killed each year because of ocean plastics. When seabirds ingest plastic, it fills up their stomachs, but since there are no nutrients in plastic, it can cause starvation. Many seabirds are found dead with their stomachs full of this waste. Scientists estimate that 60 percent of all seabird species have eaten pieces of plastic, a figure they predict will rise to 99 percent by 2050.
Ocean plastics affect pretty much every animal living in the ocean. From whales to seahorses it affects them all. If a fish at the bottom of the food chain consumes plastic, this travels up the food chain and affects all of the other sea life. This includes humans.
Ocean Plastics Cleanup
The global leader for ocean plastics cleanup is ‘The Ocean Cleanup.’ Using advanced technology their goal is to rid the world’s oceans of plastic. They use a passive system that takes advantage of the oceans natural forces to catch and concentrate the plastic. The system and the plastic are being carried by the currents. Wind and waves propel the system slightly faster than the plastic itself, which allows it to be captured.
Once this autonomous system is full-scale, it is projected to clean up 50% of the great pacific garbage patch in 5 years’ time. Research has shown that the majority of the plastic by mass is larger debris. If we can remove the large pieces of plastic before they break down into microplastics it makes the job a lot easier.
Check out theoceancleanup.com for more information.
Myths About Plastic in the Ocean
“The garbage patches are giant floating islands”
The garbage patches are not floating islands. Only a small percentage of the garbage is actually floating. Most of the garbage is either on the ocean floor, dispersed throughout the water column, or even trapped in the arctic ice. The garbage patches are primarily made up of plastic & microplastics.
“Ocean Plastics are From Ocean Industry’s, like Fishing, Cruises, and Cargo Ships.”
The vast majority of the plastic in the ocean comes from land-based activities, and the majority of that is from items we use every day. Bottles and bottle caps, plastic packaging, grocery bags, food containers, etc.
Although there is some debate about this, some scientists believe that plastic does not decompose ever. It just breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces.
“There’s a simple solution to ocean plastics”
This might seem obvious to most, but there is no simple solution to ocean plastics. If there was we would have already solved this issue. There are large-scale global efforts to rid the oceans of plastic but these patches keep growing.
How We Can Help out with Plastic in the Ocean
I mentioned earlier that the vast majority of plastic in the ocean comes from everyday items like grocery bags and plastic bottles. If we could substitute plastic for biodegradable packaging, or even used more reusable items, we would limit the amount of plastic entering the ocean. If humans were to stop using single-use plastics the amount of plastic entering the ocean would almost come to a halt.
There are also some great plastic cleanup non-profits like ‘The Ocean Cleanup.’ Don’t feel inclined to donate money if you cannot afford it. But, if we all contribute a few dollars it will go a long way.