Plastic Pollution in the Ocean: What Can I Do About It?

Plastic in the ocean pollution waste
Photo: CC0 Public Domain - NOAA

Plastic in the oceans is plaguing our seas. Ocean pollution seems like an insurmountable problem. Despite our current efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle, the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean continues to grow. What more can be done?

In recent years, shocking reports of plastic pollution in our oceans have been appearing with ever increasing frequency: swirling heaps of garbage in the Pacific, animals tangled up in or eating plastic waste and dying from it. Sadly, these reports barely scratch the surface of the plastic pollution problem in the open seas.

The simple fact is there are unimaginable amounts of plastic waste in the world’s oceans. From entire greenhouses and fishing nets to tiny particles of microplastics invisible to the naked eye: The oceans contain remnants of the entire spectrum of plastic products produced by modern industrial society.

The images we are used to seeing on the news depict mass amounts of plastic drifting visibly on the ocean’s surface. In reality, the bulk of it sinks deeper into the water – down to the deep sea. In water samples in some areas, researchers found up to six times more plastic than plankton. Several deep-sea expeditions have discovered huge volumes of plastic building up on the seabed. In short, the oceans are full of plastic.

Plastic in the Ocean: at Least Five Trillion Plastic Parts

In 2014, a long-term study concluded that there are at least 5.25 trillion plastic particles in the world’s oceans. 5,250,000,000,000,000! That’s somewhere around 700 chunks of plastic scattered through our seas for every person on earth. According to the report, the majority of these are microplastics, or particles smaller than 5 mm.

Plastic pollution in the ocean destroys ecosystems
Researchers concluded there are more than 5 trillion plastic pieces polluting world’s oceans. (Photo: The Plastic Oceans Foundation)

Apart from a handful of NGOs and private initiatives like Healthy Seas or Ocean Conservancy, there is little willingness to take responsibility. The Ocean Cleanup project has developed a technique to clean the oceans of garbage on a large scale. The Pacific Garbage Screening is also working on a solution.

Why is Plastic in the Oceans Such a Problem?

Plastic in the ocean is a serious problem, not just an eyesore. Ocean pollution is destroying ecosystems: Larger pieces of floating plastic pose an immediate risk to marine organisms, which can get tangled up in them and die. Smaller parts are ingested by a wide variety of sea creatures when they mistake plastic for food or consume it along with their natural food source.

Not only do plastics contain hazardous materials themselves, they also act almost like a magnet for environmental toxins. This makes them all the more dangerous for any living organisms which come into contact with them. Eventually, these toxins travel up the food chain, landing on our dinner plates in the form of seafood teeming with tiny plastic particles.

Plastics also suffocate corals, which absorb tiny plastic particles but have no way to expel them. It is difficult to imagine what will happen in marine ecosystems if coral reefs continue dying off.

How Does Plastic Get in the Ocean?

It is estimated that about 80% of plastic finding its way into our oceans comes from land-based sources. The remaining 20% results from ships and drilling platforms. Much of the plastic reaches the oceans via rivers – often traveling great distances from local streams, flowing into ever-larger rivers and eventually into the ocean.

Wastewater and wind distribute plastics far and wide. Ocean currents, tides, and storms quickly carry plastics from the coasts to remote corners of our oceans. Researchers have even found plastic near islands hundreds of nautical miles from the nearest inhabitants and in remote areas of Antarctica.

dead Albatross plastic in stomach
Seabirds like this albatross eat plastic parts and die of them. (Photo: Albatross at Midway Atoll Refuge von U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters under CC-BY-2.0)

How am I responsible?

Yes, the state of our oceans is revolting and depressing. Plastic pollution in the oceans is a serious problem without a clear-cut solution. Have you ever questioned the role you play in all of this? Most of us don’t personally throw plastic garbage directly into the sea, so how exactly is this our fault? The truth is, we as Americans are often blatantly unaware of how actively we are contributing to plastic pollution of our seas.

Plastic Pollution: Microplastics in Cosmetics

Plastic pollution microplastics in hygiene products
Much of the plastic pollution in the oceans comes from microplastics found in cosmetic and personal hygiene products. (Photo: © Utopia )

Particularly insidious, because they are almost invisible, microplastics are infiltrating our water systems from our bath drains. Toothpaste, skin peelings, shower gels, and many other cosmetics or personal hygiene products contain tiny plastic particles that cannot be filtered out of the wastewater. There is almost no stopping them from reaching our waterways and oceans.

Textiles Shed Synthetic Fibers

Cosmetics are not the only culprit; our clothing is releasing plastic particles, too. Garments such as fleece jackets, sportswear, or shirts containing synthetic fibers (polyester, nylon, acrylic, etc.) lose some of them every time they are washed. Washing machines cannot filter out these microscopically small fibers, nor can sewage treatment plants. As a result, these plastic particles also flow almost unchecked into the oceans.

Plastic in the Ocean: Litter

Waste that is thrown out or carelessly left somewhere, in a park or along a road, is a serious problem. That snack wrapper, cigarette butt, or plastic bag is easily blown into the nearest waterway, which then slowly but surely flows out to sea.

Did you know? You can easily reduce waste by changing your shopping habit. Read more: Plastic-Free Shopping: 3 Easy Tips for Waste Reduction

Garbage Escapes from Landfills

Even when a large portion of plastic waste is recycled or incinerated, tons of it still ends up in landfills. Despite the best precautions, this continues to be one of the places from which (plastic) garbage can start its journey into the sea. Waste can be blown or flushed into surrounding waters, which then transport it into the oceans.

Greenhouse Food Production

In modern agriculture, fruit and vegetables are often grown in greenhouses under plastic. For example, tomatoes and cucumbers are grown in southern Spain for distribution throughout Europe. Time and again, the huge plastic tarps, which cover the plants, end up in the sea. In 2013, a dead sperm whale washed up in Andalusia with 17 kg (37.5 lbs.) of plastic waste in its stomach, including 30 square meters (323 square feet) of plastic tarp.

Fishing Nets Overboard

fishing nets in the ocean threaten wildlife
Lost and abandoned fishing nets threaten many marine creatures. (Photo: Public Domain / NOAA's Marine Debris Program)

Lost or discarded fishing nets make up a considerable part of the bulk plastic waste in the oceans. These are made of synthetic fibers, so-called “ghost nets”. For marine organisms such as fish, turtles, dolphins, or whales, these are life-threatening. They become entangled in the nets and die in agony. If the nets sink to the seabed, they can destroy entire ecosystems there.

The fishing industry and its nets exist because we like eating fish. In this respect, we are contributing to this misery, even if only indirectly. If you want to see fewer marine organisms die from ghost nets, you can eat less fish; it’s as simple as that. Also, avoid eating exotic fishes like swai fish.

Plastic Pollution: Ships Dump Trash into the Sea

Both cargo ships and cruise ships are contributing to the increasing quantities of plastic waste in the sea. Sometimes accidentally, but unfortunately also often deliberately, garbage from the ships ends up in the water. Of course, we can only do something about this sort of ocean pollution indirectly: we can become much more discerning about the many everyday consumer goods imported by ship from faraway places. Is that next cruise really necessary?

What Can I Do About Plastic Waste in the Ocean?

recycling reuse reusable bags cotton clothes
You too can do your part in combatting the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean. (Photo: © Utopia / Binford)
  • Avoid plastic when possible: Cotton bags instead of plastic bags, unpackaged vegetables from the farmers’ market instead of plastic-wrapped from supermarkets, etc.
  • Be consistent about recycling: Many cities offer residential collection of recyclables, neighborhood collection points, or recycling center drop-offs free of charge.
  • Stop buying cosmetic and hygiene products containing microplastics. Beat the Microbead has compiled a helpful product guide for microplastics by country.
  • As you replace your clothing, linens, and cleaning towels, seek options made of pure cotton or other natural fibers, so that no more synthetic fibers are washed into the sea from your washing machine.
  • “Do good and talk about it”: Explain to your friends why you avoid plastic. Tell them about the problems plastic waste pollution causes in our oceans. Many people cling to their habits, not out of indifference, but out of ignorance. Ultimately, it is always a matter of reaching a critical mass of people who are committed and engaged. Let’s get started!

This article was translated from German into English by Evan Binford. You can view the original here: Plastik im Meer – was kann ich dafür?

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