The Challenge of Ocean Plastics

Plastic of various sizes - Belize. Rick LeBlanc

The Problem with Ocean Plastics 

The issue of ocean plastic debris has splashed across the front page news in recent years with the discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There has been a swell of public unrest about ocean debris, in general, and ocean plastic in particular. No one knows how much plastic has accumulated in the seas or when the first plastic bag or the first plastic cup was tossed into the ocean, but there is one certainty.

Ocean plastic has been accumulating at an increasing rate - and that rate is expected to continue to accelerate.  Worldwide production of plastics is anticipated to increase to 380 million metric tonnes by 2025, up from 250 million metric tonnes in 2015. 

And soberingly, the plastic does not disappear. It breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, and eventually is reduced to microplastics - small pieces that are less than 5mm in length. Even bioplastics or compostable plastic does not go away, as the conditions needed for composting do not exist at sea. 

“Unless steps are taken to manage this waste properly, by 2025 the ocean could contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of finfish—an unthinkable outcome,” states Stemming the Tide: Land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean. “We know that at least some of this plastic enters the ocean’s food chain, and evidence suggests that it has the potential to do significant harm.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program, plastic is eaten by fish and other marine species, resulting in irritation or damage to the digestive system, malnutrition as well as starvation.

Let’s have a look on some facts and figures to understand the level of impact ocean plastic is having on our ecosystem:

Things to Ponder

1. Plastic is very cheap, incredibly versatile and ideal for many different applications. That is why; the promulgation of plastics in last 70 years has been extraordinary.  According to sources, in 1950, worldwide production of plastics products was 50 million tonnes but in 2008, it rose to 245 million tonnes. As mentioned above, global production is calculated to reach 380 million tonnes by 2025. Around 50 percent of the plastic products we use are thrown away after a single use. And around 10 percent of the waste we generate is plastics.

2. A 2006 estimate by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says that every square mile of seafloor contains around 46,000 pieces of floating plastic.

3. The most horrifying fact is that every year over 100,000 marine mammals and over one million seabirds die due to plastic debris in seawater, mostly by eating plastics.

4. Another 2010 science study reveals that around 10.5 billion pounds to 28 billion pounds (that’s about 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons) of plastic entered our oceans.

5. A growing list of fish speeches, all sea turtle species, 22 percent of cetaceans, and 44 percent of all seabird species have been documented with plastic materials in and around their bodies.

6. Every year, the global fishing industry alone dumps more than 150,000 tonnes of plastics into the oceans including plastic nets, buoys, lines and packaging.

7. In the samples collected from Lake Erie, approximately 85 percent of plastic materials were smaller than 2/10th of an inch, and most of which was infinitesimal, known as micro-plastics. In a square mile, researchers found up to 1.7 millions of these plastic particles.

8. Marine samples collected from the North Pacific Gyre show that plastics outweigh plankton by 6:1. In that research project, it was found that between 60 percent to 80 percent of the marine trash is plastic materials and 80 percent of that comes from land-based debris.

9. Currently, there are around 500 dead zones in the oceans covering over 245,000 square kilometers globally, that is equal to the surface of entire UK.

10. Virtually every plastic piece that was ever produced still exists in some form or shape.

11. According to "Stemming the Tides," just five countries account for over one-half of ocean plastic generation. These are Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, China and the Philippines.  

Other References

The Plastic Oceans Foundation

UNESCO: Facts and figures on marine pollution