The world’s oceans are being misused as a veritable dumping ground. Scientists estimate that anywhere between 8 and 12 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year, that’s the equivalent of a whole rubbish truck full every single minute. And it’s not just directly dumped waste that is the problem - any kind of plastic waste we produce could end up in the sea at some point in its long life. Around 80 per cent of marine pollution is thought to come from land-based sources, most of it plastic litter like bottles, bags and plastic packaging. The rest is plastics and other materials released or lost at sea, such as fishing gear, nets and ropes.
Carried by the natural currents of the oceans, large amounts of this plastic debris has collected together in the North Pacific Ocean, forming a huge mass of floating waste known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex. It’s the result of decades of superfluous plastic production and a shocking symbol of failed waste infrastrucutre and our throwaway culture.
What is plastic?
Plastic is a general term for a variety of different synthetic or synthetic products that are usually derived from the hydrocarbons found in natural gas, oil and coal. The carbon compounds, also known as synthetic polymers, that are created from these raw materials, are then mixed with other additives in order to processed to create plastics by the addition of all kinds of other additives, depending on the specific requirements of the end product.
Many everyday products are made - at least in part - of plastic. The most commonly used plastic base is currently polyethylene. It’s durable and can be formed into all kinds of different shapes, which is why its so popular and used in so many different ways – including in plastic drinks bottles, shopping bags, food packaging and even polar fleeces - before (often after being used just once), it ends up being discarded.
Plastics are incredible durable and break down extremely slowly - so slowly, in fact, that there is little first-hand evidence of their decomposition rate (because they simply haven’t been around long enough yet) and scientists are forced to make educated guesses (up to 500 years for plastic bags!)
While plastics don’t biodegrade like organic debris would, they do photodegrade, meaning they break down when exposed to UV rays, into smaller and smaller pieces. In 2009, Japanese researchers found that when in warm ocean water and exposed to friction and sunlight, plastics degrade even faster than first thought. This might sound good at first, but the photodegradation process releases the additives that plastics contain, such as bisphenol A (BPA) and polystyrene (PS) oligomer, which are thought to have detrimental effects on animal and human health.
And unlike organic waste which biodegrades, plastics remain a polymer and simply disintegrate into ever smaller pieces. The majority of the plastic waste in the sea is thought to be in the form of these tiny microplastic (meaning any plastic piece less than 5mm in diameter) particles. The 2017 United Nations Clean Seas Campaign estimated that there are 51 trillion microplastic particles in our oceans today—500 times more than the number of stars in our galaxy.
Plastic on Land = Plastic in the Sea
Plastic is almost impossible to escape in everyday life, with most of us surrounded by it all day long. From the keyboard you’re typing on, or the smartphone in your hand, it’s almost impossible to avoid. We’ve produced roughly 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic produced over the past 70 years, and almost 80 per cent of it has been discarded into landfill or the environment, including the ocean. And because it can take several hundreds of years for plastic to break down, there’s a chance that any plastic product used - if not recycled or disposed of responsibly - will end its life carried by rivers and the wind and ending up in the sea, even if it was originally thrown onto a rubbish dump far away from the coast. One study published in Science in 2015 suggests that as much as 8 million metric tons (8.8 million short tons) of plastic wound up in the ocean in 2010 alone, that’s five plastic bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world.
And we often release plastic particles into the environment without realising it too - we wash microplastics down the drain each time we wash our clothes made of synthetic fabrics, when we use harsh chemical cleaners, and by using everyday cosmetics and toothpastes (which often contain microbeads). Traditional sewage plants can’t catch these miniscule plastic pieces and fibres, meaning they eventually end up in rivers, lakes and oceans.
Where Does the Plastic Waste Come From?
A study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology in 2017 suggested that more than 90 per cent of all the plastic that ends up in the oceans originates in just 10 river systems in heavily populated areas where littering is common. China is thought to be responsible for the most ocean plastic pollution per year, followed by Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria and Bangladesh. Densely populated countries with ineffective waste management infrastructure and collection systems that can’t keep up with economic growth and growing consumption of plastics.
What the report failed to mention, however, is that many developed countries such as the United States export plastic waste - to these very countries. China imported over 7 million tons of plastic scrap in 2016, more than half of all the plastic waste that was globally. (In many of these countries, people—including children—become “waste pickers,” sorting through rivers of plastic trash to find pieces to sell while polluted waterways transport the remainder straight out to sea. ) With the Chinese government is now cracking down on plastic imports, the US and Europe is seeing waste pile up at its ports.
Ocean plastic is not just an environmental, but also a social justice issue.
Where Does It End Up?
Carried by the wind and ocean currents, plastic waste often ends up far from the place where it was first discarded. Whole beaches - even on uninhabited islands far away from any signs of civilisation - are already classified as Plastic Beaches, because of the huge amounts of plastic waste that ends up there as a result of ocean currents. In 2017, 38 million pieces of plastic were found on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific. Henderson Island was found to be covered by 18 tonnes of plastic – the highest density of anthropogenic debris ever recorded anywhere in the world.
Comprehensive statistics and research about ocean plastic (location, type and amount) is hard to come by, with exact scientific data tied up in different papers and journals. The online portal Litterbase is a super visual compilation of information informed by 1,267 different scientific studies, carefully set out in comprehensible global maps and simple charts, consistently fed with new information and completely accessible to the public.
Another great source of information is Adrift. Their ocean-based system collects information from floating buoys which follow the currents just like plastic does and relay information every six hours about where they are and the conditions in that location. Using that data, the team generates a representation of the likely path of the rubbish in each area, enabling them to project where and how patches of garbage and debris will travel over the course of a ten year period. It's a fascinating yet stark look at just how much wide-reaching an impact our rubbish can have when it's washed out to sea from the coastline.
Plastic Soup and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
As well as ending up as unsightly waste on beaches, plastic pollution in the oceans is carried and gathered together by ocean currents, in certain places coming together to form gyres full of plastic, chemical sludge and other debris, known as “plastic islands”. The reason for this is the natural system of ocean currents that cover the world and regulate the transfer of warmth between the oceanic regions. These currents naturally form huge gyres and when plastic passes through it gets trapped.
The biggest one is known as the Great Pacific garbage patch, or the Pacific trash vortex. It’s located in the central North Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California and is thought to have been discovered by Charles Moore, an oceanographer, when sailing through the rarely-visited area on the way back from a sailing competition. He wrote in Natural History magazine:
“As I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere – bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.”
Estimates vary about the size of this plastic island - it depends on the degree of plastic concentration used to define the affected area exact size of these plastic islands, and the borders and content constantly change with the ocean currents and the wind. The name “island” is in fact very misleading - because the patches are so low density and many of the plastic particles trapped inside are incredibly small and under the surface of the water, meaning they’re invisible from aeroplane or satellite. The trm “plastic soup” would be more appropriate.
Recent research suggests that the heart of it is a massive 1 million square kilometres, surrounded by a 3.5m square kilometre outer periphery. The high-density centre is thought to have one million pieces of plastic per sq km.
And the Great Pacific garbage patch isn't the only one. It is thought that there are currently five huge plastic islands that have formed throughout the world: in the North and South Pacific, in the North and South Atlantic and in the Indian Ocean. This one minute video from 5 Gyres takes a quick look at them all.
Death by Plastic
Plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals. Often they end up mistaking the fragments or food, and eating it themselves or feeding it to their young, then perishing due to a blocked digestive tract or dying of malnutrition because their stomachs are so full of plastic that they don’t eat enough nutritious food. Entanglement is another danger, with animals either strangled or trapped by plastic cords, or caught and suffocated in so-called “ghost nets”, discarded fishing nets that keep catching fish and other animals even when they can no longer be reeled in.
The trailer for the film Albatross by Chris Jordan shows shocking images of how a remote idyll and its albatross population is flooded by civilisation trash, with the Midway albatross having become an iconic image for the tragic impact of plastic pollution.
And it’s not just the plastic itself that is a problem - the other chemicals released into the water when the plastic breaks down also has a negative impact on the sealife around. In a paper in the journal Nature, oysters that had consumed microplastics were shown to have fewer and less healthy offspring. Research also strongly suggests that at certain exposure levels, some of the chemicals in these products, such as bisphenol A (BPA), may cause cancer and have been linked to infertility in men.
And with humans consuming contaminated fish and seafood, plastic pollution is certainly a human health issue too.A 2017 study discovered nylon, polystyrene and polyethylene pieces in the bodies of different fish that had been sold for human consumption. The scientists warned that because plastic attracts toxins in the environment, microplastics were providing a medium to facilitate the transport of other toxic compounds such as heavy metals and organic pollutants.
What are Governments Doing About it?
One major problem is that the plastic islands are in international waters, meaning that no government feels directly responsible for the problem. But the issue is becoming ever more prevalent, and it looks like - on paper at least - there is a move towards trying to find a solution.
In December 2017 nearly 200 countries signed a U.N. resolution to eliminate plastic pollution in the sea, with countries agreeing to start monitoring the amount of plastic they put into the ocean and to explore ways to make it illegal to dump waste in the oceans. However, there is currently no timetable and it is not legally binding.
Additionally, following China’s decision to ban imports of foreign recyclable material, the first-ever European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy was adopted on January 16, 2018. It's designed to change minds in Europe, possibly tax damaging behaviour, and modernise plastics production and collection by investing 350 million EUR in research, hopefually making all packaging reusable or recyclable by the year 2030.