Plastic waste in the oceans is widely reported. Sometimes it seems like an insurmountable problem. Despite our current efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle, it continues to grow. What more can be done?
In recent years, reports about plastic waste in the sea have been growing: swirling heaps of garbage in the Pacific, animals tangled up in or eating plastic waste are dying from it. Sadly, these reports barely scratch the surface of the plastic 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 that are invisible to the naked eye, the oceans contain remnants of practically every plastic product produced by modern industrial society.
At first glance, plastic is only visible on the surface of the sea, but most of it drifts 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 amounts of plastic building up on the seabed. In short, the oceans are full of plastic.
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 more than 700 plastic parts floating around the seas for every person on earth. According to the researchers, the majority of these are microplastics, or particles smaller than 5 mm.
Except for a few NGOS and private initiatives like Healthy Seas or Ocean Conservancy, there is little willingness to take responsibility. The Ocean Cleanup project has even developed a technique to clean the oceans of garbage on a large scale.
Why is Plastic Such a Problem?
Plastic in the ocean is a serious problem, not just unsightly litter. Larger plastic parts pose an immediate risk to marine organisms, which can get caught in them and die. Smaller parts are ingested by a wide variety of sea creatures with, or instead of, food. Not only do plastics contain hazardous materials themselves, they also act almost as 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 as seafood swimming 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 die off even faster than before.
How Does Plastic Get in the Ocean?
It is estimated that about 80% of ocean plastic comes from land-based sources. The remaining 20% comes 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 the oceans. Researchers have even found plastic near islands hundreds of nautical miles from the nearest inhabitants and in remote areas of Antarctica.
What Did I Do?
Yes, the problem is horrible and can seem overwhelming. What did we do to get here? Most of us don’t personally throw plastic garbage directly into the sea, so how exactly is this our fault? The truth is, we are often unaware of how actively we are contributing to littering the seas.
Microplastics in Cosmetics
Particularly insidious, because they are almost invisible, microplastics are entering the water system from our bath drains. Toothpastes, skin peels, shower gels, and many other cosmetic 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.
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 flows slowly toward the sea. Of course, most of us think we would never do that. Apparently some of us do, because the garbage is coming from somewhere.
Garbage Escapes from Landfills
Even when a large proportion 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
A considerable part of the bulk plastic waste in the oceans is lost or discarded fishing nets 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.
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 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?
- Avoid plastic when possible: cotton bags instead of plastic bags, unpackaged vegetables from the market instead of plastic-wrapped from discounters, etc.
- Be consistent about recycling: many cities offer residential collection of recyclables, neighborhood collection points, recycling center drop-off 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 causes in the seas. 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!