Some environmental menaces take place far from human populations. Climate change has its greatest impact at the poles. And how many people see firsthand the effect of plastic pollution on our oceans?
Once, not long ago, plastic meant cheap and shoddy. Now it’s the most suitable material for making so many things that we can’t function without it.
Unfortunately, we use lots of it for packaging and other temporary uses. Then we throw it away. Except there’s no such place as away. Plastic waste takes up a lot of landfill space. And too much of it winds up in the world’s oceans.
Unlike paper or other more nearly natural products, plastic doesn’t become something else (compost, for example) as it decays. It breaks into smaller and smaller pieces but remains the same substance. With toxic effects on soil and water.
How do oceans collect plastic, and how much?
The rotation of the earth and wind patterns cause circular ocean currents called gyres. They help regulate the earth’s temperature, how salty the oceans are, and the flow of nutrients. And within the circles, they accumulate plastic debris. There are five gyres: two each in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and one in the Indian Ocean.
The plastic trash floating on the surface of the gyres only accounts for 5% of the total. The other 95% has sunk beneath the surface.
The size of plastic objects in the gyres ranges from discarded fishing gear down to microscopic particles. Perhaps most people traveling across the ocean by ship wouldn’t even notice most of it.
But the impact is huge. The world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, stands more than 2,795 feet tall. The Ocean Conservancy conducts international coastal cleanups. It estimates that in 2016 it collected enough plastic bottles that if they were stacked on top of another, they would be 372 times taller than that. Not to mention straws, utensils, and cigarette lighters.
How much plastic gets into the oceans?
It’s hard to find reliable statistics. I found one source that estimates one or two million tons annually in one paragraph, eight million tons in the next, and 10-20 million tonsa bit later. The author probably found each of those estimates in different sources and failed to notice the odd juxtaposition in the final draft.
So here’s probably the best available answer: Our oceans receive an unimaginable amount of plastic every year.
Since it’s not biodegradable, it stays there and wreaks havoc on marine life. More and more follows constantly. It may be impossible to remove it. Our best hope is to find a way to keep from adding more.
Where does all that plastic come from?
Plastic pollution comes from mismanagement of plastic waste, but not all plastic waste makes it to the ocean. China is overwhelmingly the world leader in mismanaged plastic waste, accounting for 8.8 metric tons in 2010. Of that, 3.53 metric tons swept out to sea. Those figures more than double the contribution of the second-place plastic polluter (3.2 metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste, with 1.29 metric tons entering the ocean).
Rounding out the dirty dozen polluters are, in order the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Thailand, Malaysia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, and, um, the US.
You will find more infographics at Statista
The top five nations account for about 60% of marine plastic trash. Citizens of these comparatively poor countries are becoming affluent enough to want to purchase the same consumer goods as Americans. Which come in the same kinds of plastic packaging.
But these countries lack the infrastructure for environmentally sound waste management. Only about 40% of the garbage in these countries gets collected properly. Too often, the haulers save time and fuel by dumping it by the side of the road. Lax laws mean they can dump with impunity.
Most trash all over Asia simply gets piled in dumps, where the wind or heavy rain can carry it away. It lands in streams that feed rivers that spew it into the ocean.
In these and many other poor countries, some people make their living on the dumps. They pick through the trash looking for anything they can sell to recyclers. That means they’ll collect plastic bottles, but not bags or the pouches individual portions of shampoo or ketchup come in. And many people in poorer countries can’t afford to buy more than that at a time. So these worthless packets account for a higher portion of trash than they do in wealthier countries.
What is the worst plastic in the oceans?
Oceans contain large debris, like lost or abandoned fishing nets. They have lots of bags, bottles, and various other packaging. Some is whole. Much has broken down into smaller, but still visible pieces.
What we can’t see with the naked eye might cause the biggest problems. Some of it might result from photodegradation of trash into invisibly small pieces. Most of it comes from microbeads and microfibers.
Someone got the bright idea of adding millions of tiny bits of plastic called microbeads to lotions, hand cleansers, and other consumer products to give them a rougher texture. Wastewater treatments plants can’t filter out such small particles. So they all washed out to sea.
Whenever we wash any kind of fabric, microscopic fragments break off. Polyester and other manmade fibers are made of plastic, so the fragments comprise plastic microfibers that likewise pass through any filter and out to sea. Every load of laundry might release up to 17 million microfibers.
What effect does plastic pollution have on marine life?
To marine life that feeds on plankton, these plastic microparticles in the ocean look like food. They can eat it, but not digest it. They don’t excrete it, either. It accumulates in their gut until they become too full to eat anything else. Then they starve.
Other animals higher on the food chain eat these creatures and all the accumulated plastic in their gut.
The predators can’t digest the plastic, either. Whatever their digestive systems manage to process results in toxins accumulating in their flesh. When other predators eat them, they also eat all that plastic and the toxins.
Humans, by the way, are top-level predators. Our fishes’ plastic-laden guts have been discarded before they reach our plates, but the accumulated chemicals remain in the flesh we eat.
Most, but not all, nations have banned the manufacture and sale of products with plastic microbeads. Microfibers present a more difficult challenge. Synthetics now make the majority of fabric manufactured and sold worldwide. Simply banning them is not feasible.
Larger marine animals, such as turtles and birds, eat the larger and more visible bits of plastic and feed it to their young. They, too, can eventually starve to death. So plastic pollution directly decreases the population of numerous species of marine animals.
What are we supposed to do about it?
Most plastic enters the ocean from eight countries in Asia, two in Africa, one in South America, and us. We have better waste management than the other countries, but we have a large population and long coastlines facing two oceans. Not all of us dispose of trash carefully.
It stands to reason that problems must be solved at the source. China has aggressively begun to cut down on its pollution. The other nations must somehow do the same, but they have less money to do it.
But international conglomerates, including many with headquarters in the US, contribute to the problem. They sell goods in the plastic packaging that overwhelms the waste management infrastructure.
Our manufacturers will have to find a biodegradable alternative to plastic for packaging and other single use products. That will result in less plastic being manufactured, so it will have a disruptive impact on the economy
But what can ordinary households do to reduce plastic pollution in the oceans? Here are just a few suggestions:
- Realize that even trash discarded far from the ocean can wind up in the ocean.
- Don’t litter.
- If you see litter, pick it up and discard it properly. That plastic bag by the curb will otherwise eventually get into either the sewer or a stream. If it gets into a stream, it can make it to the ocean even if the stream is in the Rockies.
- Take reusable bags to the store instead of accepting plastic bags.
- Reduce or eliminate buying single-use products.
- Prefer non-plastic packaging where available.
- Prefer clothing, linens, etc. from natural fibers to polyester and other synthetics.
- Recycle, being careful to follow your municipality’s guidelines.
- Participate in beach or creek cleanups.
- Speak up to influence friends, neighbors, and all levels of government.
5 countries dump more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world combined / Patrick Winn. PRI. January 13, 2016
The countries polluting the oceans the most / Miall McCarthy, Statista. August 7, 2018
Plastic pollution: the impact on our oceans and what we can do about it / Sloactive. [January 2019?]
Plastic pollution on Kanapou Bay. National Ocean Service Image Gallery via Flickr.
Derelict fishing net. Some rights reserved by Jennyvids
Albatross carcass Some rights reserved by Sea Studios Foundation
Plastic on a riverbank Some rights reserved by Horia Varlan