Plastic pollution is a growing problem worldwide, and its impact on our oceans cannot be overstated.
In this guide, we will explore the detrimental effects of plastic on our oceans and the marine life that depends on them.
The Scale of the Problem
I'll start with some mind-boggling facts on our obsession with plastic.
And, if we continue at the rate we're going at we'll more than double this figure by 2050.
Unsurprisingly, the scale of plastic pollution in our oceans is simply staggering too. It is estimated that up to 11 million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans every year, and the number is expected to double by 2030 and double again by 2050.
Just to clarify, to reach 11 million metric tonnes of waste plastic, a garbage truck would need to empty its entire contents of waste into the ocean every minute for a whole year. Pretty scary huh?
This plastic pollution can harm marine life, affect ecosystems, and even impact human health.
We use more plastic than ever before. Plastic is just everywhere and we've sadly become accustomed to it. It's cheap to produce and the fact is, it's really useful. But, do we really need it for a lot of things? Heck no!
How does Plastic Reach the Ocean in Such Huge Quantities?
Around 80% of the plastic in the ocean comes from land based activities and is not dumped straight into the water. The other 20% is marine litter from fishing, sea accidents, dumping, and industrial loss.
It is thought that we use around 320 million tonnes of plastic every year and only around 9% of this is estimated to be recycled and reused. You don't need good math skills to work out that's a lot of waste!
So where does all the waste plastic go? How does all this plastic end up in the ocean?
Improper Waste Disposal
Items we use on a daily basis such as sanitary products, cotton buds, and wet wipes are disposed of via toilets. Additionally, when we launder our clothes, microfibers are released into waterways, which are not easily filtered out by wastewater plants.
Consequently, these microfibers are ingested by small marine organisms, ultimately making their way up the food chain to us.
One of the main ways plastic ends up in the ocean is through improper waste disposal.
When plastic waste is not disposed of properly, it can be carried by wind or water into streams, rivers, and eventually, the ocean.
Landfill isn't Secure
If landfill waste isn't covered properly it can easily end up in waterways that lead to oceans and seas. The fact is it's just cheaper to dump or incinerate waste than recycle it and many countries choose to just dump in landfill.
Natural disasters, such as hurricanes and tsunamis, can also contribute to plastic pollution in the ocean. When these events occur, plastic waste can be carried from landfills and other waste sites into waterways and eventually the ocean.
Harmful Effects on Marine Life
Plastic pollution has a devastating impact on marine life and wildlife. Here are some of the ways in which wildlife is suffering.
Marine animals, such as sea turtles and whales, mistake plastic debris for food, which can cause internal blockages, starvation, and death. According to the World Wildlife Fund, up to 90% of seabirds and 50% of sea turtles have ingested plastic.
Plastic waste in oceans, such as discarded fishing gear, can entangle marine animals, leading to injuries, suffocation, and drowning. It is reported that more than 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year from entanglement in or ingestion of plastic debris.
When plastics break down in the ocean, they release toxic chemicals that can harm marine life and wildlife. For example, plastic particles can absorb and transport harmful pollutants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and pesticides, which can accumulate in the food chain.
Plastic pollution also affects the habitats of marine life and wildlife. Studies have shown that plastic debris can smother coral reefs and make them more prone to disease. Coral reefs are essential ecosystems that support a wide range of marine life. It would be absolutely devastating to lose them.
The Human Health Connection
While plastic pollution in the ocean primarily affects marine life and wildlife, it can also have implications for human health. Here are some ways in which plastic pollution in the ocean can affect human health:
Fish and other seafood that have ingested plastic can absorb toxic chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and pesticides, which can accumulate in their tissue.
If humans consume contaminated seafood, they may be exposed to these harmful chemicals, which can have negative health effects.
Microplastics in Drinking Water
Microplastics, which are tiny particles of plastic less than 5mm in size, have been found in tap water, bottled water, and other sources of drinking water.
While the health effects of consuming microplastics are not yet fully understood, research has suggested that they may have negative impacts on human health, such as inflammation and damage to organs.
When plastic waste breaks down in the ocean, it can release greenhouse gases, such as methane and ethylene, which contribute to climate change.
Additionally, microplastics can become airborne and enter the atmosphere, potentially leading to respiratory problems and other negative health impacts.
The economic costs of plastic pollution, such as the costs of cleaning up beaches and oceans and treating contaminated water are massive. As too, are the measures we need to take to change our attitudes towards plastic use and reduce our use of it.
How Are We Combatting Plastic Pollution in Our Oceans?
Combatting plastic pollution in our oceans requires a multi-faceted approach that involves government action, individual behavior change, and corporate responsibility.
Here are some steps being taken by governments worldwide to address plastic pollution:
Bans and Restrictions
Many governments have implemented bans or restrictions on single-use plastic items, such as plastic bags, straws, and cutlery, as well as microbeads in personal care products. These measures aim to reduce plastic waste and encourage the use of more sustainable alternatives.
The current linear economy for plastics, which involves producing, using, and discarding plastics, is unsustainable and contributes to plastic pollution in a big way.
A transition to a circular economy for plastics is necessary, in which plastic waste is kept in the economy and out of the environment through strategies such as recycling, reuse, and redesign.
Achieving a circular economy for plastics requires a collaborative effort from governments, businesses, and consumers, and will require significant changes to the way we produce, use, and dispose of plastics.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
Some governments have implemented EPR policies, which require companies to take responsibility for the environmental impact of their products throughout their lifecycle, including disposal.
This incentivizes companies to design products with recyclability and reusability in mind, and can reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in our oceans.
The United Nations has developed a Global Plan of Action on Marine Litter, which aims to address the sources, impacts, and management of marine litter.
The plan includes a set of voluntary measures for governments to implement, such as improving waste management and promoting sustainable production and consumption.
Governments have also invested in clean-up initiatives to remove plastic waste from our oceans. For example, in 2018, the UK government committed £25 million to support the development of new technologies and initiatives to tackle plastic pollution.
Education and Awareness Campaigns
Many governments have launched education and awareness campaigns to inform the public about the impacts of plastic pollution and encourage behavior change.
For example, the Australian government launched the "War on Waste" campaign in 2017, which aimed to reduce waste and promote recycling.