The issue of plastics in our ocean is one that is climbing the agendas of governments and the environmental groups around the works.  Almost 97% of the water on Earth is found in the ocean.  Healthy oceans are vital for the survival of the planet, providing a rich source of food for over a billion people, as well as helping to regulate climate and absorb high levels C02.  Yet each year we are polluting these oceans with over 12 million tonnes of plastic. It litters our beaches, the ocean floor and harms our marine wildlife.  Unless we do something to reverse the damage to our ecosystem, we will irreparably damage it forever.  Plastic enters the oceans from landfill, illegal dumping and down our drains and toilets.  A lot of plastic waste cannot be seen as it sinks to the ocean floor, but is fed on by marine life.  Everything from waste plastic bottles, wrappers, straws, microbeads from toiletries, clothing fibres and much more end up in the oceans. 

The Scale Of The Problem

You can’t underestimate the sheer scale of the problem.  12 million tonnes of plastic has catastrophic effects on marine life and the ecosystem.  Each year: 
  • There are 46,000 pieces of plastic in each square mile of water (5.25 trillion tonnes)
  • 50% of all the plastic in the ocean is single-use only, only 9% is recycled plastic
  • 500 billion plastic bags are used every year around the world
  • The UK contributes 1.7 million tonnes of plastic per year
  • Every year 79% of plastic ends up in landfill or the oceans, 9% is recycled and 12% is industrially incinerated
  • Floating between Hawaii and California is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  It measures over 1.5 million square kilometres, which is around three times the size of the entire country of France

The Impact On Sea Life  

Plastic in our oceans affects animals large and small. Over 700 species have so far been found to be affected.  There are many distressing accounts of the suffering caused by plastic pollution. Birds and turtles tangled in nets or trapped in plastic packaging.  When ingested by these animals, plastic can cause illness and death.  In mammals such as whales, plastic can cause a mother’s milk to become poisonous, threatening the life of her calf who is feeding from her. 
  • Over 1 million seabirds and 100,000 sea creatures die from being tangled in plastic (this is a conservative estimate)
  • 100% of baby sea turtles of all species studied have ingested plastic
  • One-third of the fish caught for human consumption contains plastic

What Can Be Done To Save The Oceans?

Our oceans are very close to a tipping point, which means that they will be unrecoverable from the damage done to marine life and water quality. We have a limited window in which to act, and everyone has to do their part. 

Ocean Clean-up

Plastic pollution has found itself moving up the world’s list of priorities. Many countries have volunteers who spend their time cleaning plastic from the beaches and tending to injured animals.  The organisation Ocean Consultancy, and it’s teams of volunteers have cleaned up over 220 million pounds of rubbish from the world’s beaches over the past 30 years. 

Awareness & Lobbying

Personalities such as David Attenborough are leading the push to ban single-use plastics and work to reverse the damage to the ecosystem.  Organisation’s such as the Ocean Conservancy lobbies governments and industry around the world to reduce their use of single-use plastics, increase their percentage of recycled plastic used and find alternatives.  It is starting to have an effect.  Large corporations are already moving away from single-use plastics including: 
  • Evian
  • MacDonalds
  • Norwegian Cruise Lines
  • Starbucks
  • American Airlines
  • Guinness
  • Sodexo
  • The Walt Disney Company
  • Method
  • Marriott
  • IKEA

Collection & Recycling

Improving recycling on a global scale now can have a huge effect on the amount of waste plastic ending up in the oceans. This will have the knock-on effect of reducing the contamination of fish that will end up in the food chain.  

Is The World Ready To Accept Alternatives To Plastic? 

To find a solution that works for the long term, we need to find alternatives to plastic.  It won’t be easy. Plastic is cheap to produce, is light, durable and used in so many of the things that bring convenience to modern life. It’s difficult for today’s society to imagine life without it.  Even with all of the efforts to reduce its use, production is expected to double in the next decade. How much of this will end up in the oceans?    (Sources: Earthsky, National Geographic)