Microplastic in the Oceans

Plastic in the Oceans: How It Got There, How to Get It Out

Plastic is choking our oceans, threatening human health, coastal tourism, and our climate, and ultimately will outnumber fish in the sea. 

The oceans are our most valuable resource. Covering 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, the ocean produces most of the world’s oxygen, regulates our climate and weather patterns, and serves as home to millions of the Earth’s creatures, from tiny single-cell organisms to the mighty blue whale. 

They’re also being choked by trash. The vast majority of this marine debris, from surface waters to deep-sea sediments, is made up of plastic. This accumulation of non-degradable debris in our oceans has become such a problem that scientists from the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit protector of endangered species, call it a “Global Crisis.” 

Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

Plastic, plastic everywhere

Plastic is a synthetic organic polymer. It’s cheap, lightweight, strong, and moldable, making it ideal for a wide variety of applications. Plastic can be found in packaging, building and construction, household and sports equipment, vehicles, and electronics. More than 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, and about half of it is used for single-use purposes, such as cups, lids, straws, containers, wrappers, and bottles. Plastic has become so ubiquitous in our lives we hardly notice it. 

One sad fact about plastic is that it doesn’t biodegrade. That means that every piece of plastic ever made still exists today in some form. And with just five percent of the world’s plastic effectively recycled (a recent Yale School of the Environment study found that only a fraction of America’s plastic can actually be recycled), that leaves 40 percent ending up in landfills and a third in fragile ecosystems such as the world’s oceans. 

Granted, not all trash in the oceans is plastic. But the vast majority is. Among the top 10 things picked up during the 2017 International Coastal Cleanup were food wrappers, beverage bottles, grocery bags, straws, and takeout containers—all made of plastic, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA). 

Once plastic reaches the ocean, some floats. Some sinks. Often it drifts around for a while and eventually breaks down into tiny pieces called microplastics. These microplastics, measuring less than 5mm size, never fully degrade in the ocean. They just exist indefinitely, choking our oceans, impacting marine life, and harming our own health. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

How does plastic get into the ocean?

For the most part, it’s our fault that most plastic ends up in the ocean. Humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of it in the past six decades. Considering that most plastic never degrades, and just a fraction of it is actually getting recycled, it’s got to go somewhere. But how does it make its way into the ocean? 

Sure, some bad actors intentionally dump trash into the sea. Abandoned or lost boats and fishing nets are also to blame for a large chunk of ocean plastic. But much of the plastic waste we produce eventually travel great lengths to reach the sea. 

Consider the cigarette butt you stomped out at the curb or the candy wrapper that flew out of your car window. Even that lightweight water bottle you threw into the trash because you couldn’t find a recycling bin can take flight while being hauled to the landfill and end up on the side of the road. These items get tossed around in the wind, caught in the rain, and eventually make their way into nearby streams and waterways. From there, debris is washed directly into the ocean. 

And we haven’t even touched on intentional littering and illegal dumping that occurs all around the world. That junk, too, eventually gets swept away by wind or rainwater and journeys on to the sea. 

A large majority of the plastic in the oceans is hardly visible. These are microplastics that slough off of our clothes, our cars, and household products. Feeding through our wastewater and into the oceans. It’s such a problem that regulations are in place in some parts of the world to help curb microplastic waste. According to Harvard, more than 14 million tons of microplastics are in the world’s oceans. Marine animals are consuming large amounts of plastic as a result.

What does plastic in the ocean do?

Ocean plastic injures and kills fish, seabirds and marine mammals, and has impacted at least 267 species worldwide, according to American environmental advocacy group Clean Water Action. Fatalities are a result of ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement. 

Some species impacted include:

  • 86 percent of all sea turtle species, some of which mistake plastic bags for jellyfish.
  • 44 percent of all seabird species, often found with bellies full of plastic.
  • 43 percent of all marine mammal species, including whales found death with stomachs full of plastic bags and surgical gloves.
Photo by João Ferreira on Unsplash

Islands of plastic trash

Where does the plastic in the ocean go once it gets there? A lot gets caught in the ocean’s currents and converges into plastic accumulation zones. These so-called “ocean gyres” circle large amounts of stationary, calm water called “garbage patches.” 

There are five major ocean gyres on Earth, some of which have significantly large garbage patches:

  • The Indian Ocean Gyre
  • North Atlantic Gyre
  • North Pacific Gyre
  • South Atlantic Gyre
  • South Pacific Gyre

The largest accumulation of plastic can be found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a 1.6 million square-kilometer area —about twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France — located halfway between Hawaii and California. Trash from the coast of North America travels about six years to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, while trash from Japan and other Asian countries travel for less than a year to get there. 

That mass of plastic goo was discovered by marine researcher Charles Moore in 1997. He was returning home through the North Pacific Gyre after competing in the Transpacific Yacht Race when he came upon the mass of trash. He describes it this way in the Natural History magazine: 

“I often struggle to find words that will communicate the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to people who have never been to sea. Day after day, Alguita was the only vehicle on a highway without landmarks, stretching from horizon to horizon. Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.”

What can I do to save the ocean from plastic? 

You might not think that one person can make a difference when it comes to reducing plastic in the ocean. But one person’s effort can have a significant impact. In fact, the average person throws away approximately 185 pounds of plastic each year

Here are some ways you can reduce your plastic footprint and help save the ocean:

  • Stop using single-use plastics. Bring cloth bags to the grocery store instead of using plastic ones. Use and reuse metal or glass bottles for water. And just say no to plastic cutlery.
  • B.Y.O.Mug. Bring your own cup to your favorite coffee shop and have them to prepare your favorite latte in it instead. 
  • Rethink plastic baggies and wraps. Wrap your sandwiches in beeswax wraps or switch to foil, which is recyclable.
  • No more plastic straws. It can take up to 200 years for a plastic straw or stirrer to decompose. Try paper straws or, better yet, put your lips to your beverage container and sip!
Similar stories