How plastic waste makes its way into our oceans?
Updated: Apr 25, 2022
Ocean pollution is one of the major environmental problems we face, and a staggering amount of pollution in the oceans is plastic. Waste plastics in the ocean harm ocean life, affect the oceans’ ecosystems, and are carried en masse to remote areas by ocean currents. How does so much plastic waste end up in the oceans?
Plastic is popular because it is low-cost and durable enough to be used for many, many different purposes. The production of plastic around the world is massive, and plastics of one form or another can be found virtually everywhere. Unfortunately, in the same way that plastics are durable, they are also very resistant to decomposition in the environment.
According to The Economist, the countries of the world produce around 418 million (US) tons of plastic per year. Over the history of consumer plastics (i.e., since the 1950s), it is estimated that less than 10% of plastic produced has been recycled, while 12% has been incinerated. Plastic can also be costly to recycle, and the recycling process itself can result in additional plastic bits being released into the environment, and eventually, the ocean. Larger, or macro- plastic debris can also break down into tiny, micro- pieces that float and spread across the ocean.
By and large, the plastic that ends up in the oceans is from commonly used consumer products. Pieces of plastic litter on city streets get blown by wind or washed away into sewer drains, which often eventually lead them into rivers and oceans. Plastic waste being transported to landfills after collection also often meets the same fate. Other contributors include litter on beaches, consumer hygiene products (shampoo, face wash, etc.) containing micro plastics that are washed down the drain or flushed, and even plastic fibers that come loose from clothing in the washing machine.
The global trade in waste plastics has been perhaps the biggest contributor to plastic pollution of the ocean. This trade has been largely banned by the United Nations because many of the countries importing waste plastics lacked the resources to properly process all of the waste, resulting in improper disposal of the plastics.
Worldwide reliance on plastics has created a nightmare environment for our oceans. Even if it is unintended, the use and disposal of plastic products contributes to the tons of plastic pollutants that end up in the sea each year.