Every year, anywhere from about 8 to 12 million US tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans. The scale of the problem is enormous, but it’s not a lost cause. A change in how we live could be the catalyst for cleaner oceans in the future — like when your dentist says you can avoid further problems if you brush and floss more! Read on to learn about the scope of the issue, why plastics in our oceans are such a problem, and what you can do to help put the brakes on plastic pollution.
Coming to Terms With the Problem
Plastics ushered in an era of convenience and are largely responsible for our modern era of mass consumerism. Things made with plastic are inexpensive to produce and they’re lighter (and hence more cost-effective to ship). They’re also incredibly versatile. Look around you and think about how much plastic there is within sight of you right now.
Two of plastics’ other appealing qualities — durability and relatively low cost — also contribute to its greatest negative outcomes. Many plastics are quite durable so they last a long time and break down very slowly, often taking 500–1000 years to decompose. Because plastic products are often inexpensive, we tend to throw them away without thinking, either because the item was made to be disposable as a single- or low-use product, or because it is cheap to replace. All this means there is a lot of plastic in the world. And far too much of it ends up escaping the proper waste disposal streams. Unfortunately, once it leaves the waste stream, it tends to stay out of it.
You don’t have to live near water to realize that plastic has a way of finding its way out of our garbage cans and recycling bins and into the waterway. When was the last time any of you urban-dwellers went for a walk and didn’t see a plastic water bottle or grocery bag at the side of the road or pressed up against a fence? But, let’s skip over that issue for now and focus on the world’s oceans.
How Much Plastic Garbage Is In the Ocean?
Some fast facts to put it in perspective:
- Every minute, an amount of plastic equal to a full garbage truckload is deposited in our oceans.
- Of the plastic that ends up in the oceans each year, 236,000 tons are microplastics which are minuscule particles of plastic smaller than the nail of your pinky finger.
- The amount of plastic in the ocean is set to increase tenfold by 2020.
- It is projected that by 2050 the weight of all the plastic in the oceans will exceed the weight of all the fish.
- This is not just a surface problem – plastic has been found 7 miles (11km) deep, in some of the most remote and least understood ecosystems on Earth.
Where Does All the Plastic In the Ocean Come From?
Scientists’ best estimates are that 80% of the debris in the ocean comes from land-based activities. The remainder comes from oil rigs, private boats, commercial ships losing cargo, and fishing vessels dropping nets and other gear. The debris itself is comprised of everything you can conceive of: automobile parts, toys, cigarette lighters, beverage bottles, and countless tiny pieces beyond identification.
While just about every country on the planet contributes to the problem, certain countries lead the way. Here’s a graphic of the top 10 annual global plastic polluters, also showing where the USA stands in relation, contributing 336,000 metric tons of plastic waste to the oceans every year:
Top 10 Global Plastic Polluters – And How the USA Compares
Annual global plastic polluters by country. (Data courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.)
How Does Plastic Garbage End Up in the Ocean?
Most of the world’s major producers and consumers of plastic do not have waste management facilities in place to handle it all. They lack adequate collection, recycling, and disposal systems. Some of the garbage is deliberately and illegally dumped straight into the ocean. Even where garbage collection exists, poor containment can lead to wind-blown plastics ending up in rivers, lakes, and ultimately oceans. In the Philippines, one city has dumped its garbage on a beach for the past 50 years.
On an individual level, garbage left or lost at the beach or dropped in or near rivers contributes to the problem. Even plastics flushed down the toilet — yes, some people do that — can sometimes find their way to the ocean.
Once it’s in the ocean, where does it all end up?
The answer to that question and many more can be found in the full version of this article over at itsafishthing.com.