We all know that plastic pollution is posing a major threat to our oceans – unfortunately, there’s no getting away from the fact that up to 12 million tonnes of plastic enters our oceans every single year. But where does all this ocean plastic come from? Who is responsible? What can be done to stop this happening?
It’s thought that around 80% of marine debris comes from the land, and the other 20% is from the disposal or loss of rubbish/goods at sea. This is significant, as it shows our everyday activities on land contribute to the vast majority of ocean waste. The plastic found among this waste is particularly concerning, as it will last for such a long time in a marine environment.
Some of the countries that are responsible for the most plastic waste in our oceans are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria and Bangladesh.
Does that mean we can give ourselves a pat on the back because we’re not on this list? Far from it. The UK is still sending a large proportion of its plastic waste abroad, and some of it is going to these countries. Ocean plastic pollution is a global issue, and it is never as simple as blaming individual countries.
How does plastic get into our oceans?
There are many ways that plastics can enter the marine environment, including poor waste management, intentional dumping, accidental dumping and, significantly, littering. Due to a lack of awareness and general lack of waste collection or recycling infrastructure in many parts of the world, littering is an enormous issue.
Public awareness of the problems caused by plastic is lacking and lots of garbage gets thrown into rivers, where it conveniently disappears from sight – but ultimately ends up in the ocean. It’s thought that up to 95% of river-borne plastic pollution comes from just ten rivers. Eight of these rivers are in Asia, where the mismanagement of waste means that an abundance of plastic ends up entering rivers and being washed into the sea. These rives are the Yangtze, the Indus, Yellow River, Hai River, the Nile, the Ganges, Pearl River, Amur River, the Niger, and the Mekong (in that order).
Lots of plastics makes its way into our oceans via drains as well. Many of the products that we wash down the sink or flush down the toilet have plastics in them, including wet wipes, sanitary products, cosmetics and cotton buds. They often end up in the sea at the end of their journey. Microplastics can get into waterways and be washed into the sea, though the UK has taken a step in the right direction by banning microbeads, tiny particles of plastic that used to be added to lots of cosmetic products. However, microplastics are still found in macerated wastes and industrial raw materials. Larger pieces of plastic will also break down into microplastics over time, especially when they have entered the ocean, where waves, rocks and debris can cause them to deteriorate faster.
Littering: the issue for our oceans
Littering is a huge issue facing our oceans. It speaks volumes that the more commonly-found types of single-use plastics on sea shores are drink bottle caps, cigarette butts, cotton bud sticks, crisp packets/sweet wrappers, sanitary applications and plastic bags. When we dispose of single-use plastics in the ocean, it’s even more problematic because they won’t decompose any time soon. Only around 18% of marine waste comes from non-plastic sources, and an enormous 49% comes from single-use plastics!
European Parliament does have a number of measures to tackle the marine plastic issues, including extending producer responsibility, a collection target of 90% for drinks bottles, and a target of 25% recycle content to be used in plastic bottles by 2025. But clearly, we need to be preventing plastic getting into the ocean as well.
Where does all that plastic go?
When waste enters the ocean, some of it disperses and some of it runs in currents, concentrating into ‘gyres’. The largest gyre, called the Central Gyre, is in the North Atlantic and it moves inside the Gulf Stream in a clockwise direction. The gyre has been studied since 1984 and large parts of it are in the northern Sargasso Sea, which is a fish spawning location. Plastic only leaves the gyre when it ends up on shore, or eventually begins to decompose and sink.
Preventing plastic entering oceans
Sadly, once plastics are in the ocean, there is often very little we can do to remove them – especially tiny microplastic particles. Beach and ocean clean-ups can barely make a mark when there is this much waste already, and more is entering the ocean every day.
The best-case scenario is to stop plastic entering our oceans in the first place. This requires us all to alter our mindsets, habits and activities to help the wider cause.
At GreenSeas Trust, we help people do just this. We are all about behavioural change – those seemingly small alterations that can make the world of difference. We are campaigning to put more bins on beaches – eye-catching bins with a clear message that people cannot miss – to encourage people to dispose of their waste responsibly.
If you can spare even just a couple of pounds, you can make a different to our oceans. We are a volunteer-led charity, so every penny you donate will go straight into our projects. Donate now, and let’s work together to put more bins on beaches and keep more plastic out of our oceans.