Editor’s Note: The problem of plastic pollution has engulfed our oceans and fresh waterways. It is up to each one of us to continue to educate ourselves and each other, so we can make informed decisions and choices. Please share this very important article written by SLO active.
The image featured in this article is of a 50-foot long whale replica, created by Greenpeace Philippines from plastic waste and positioned on the beach near the shoreline in Manila Bay.
Plastic Pollution: The Problem
Litter in the environment is an ongoing problem, but arguably one of the most pressing environmental challenges that we are faced with today is marine plastic debris. The two common sources marine debris originates from are:
- land-based, which includes litter from beach-goers, as well as debris that has either blown into the ocean or been washed in with stormwater runoff; and
- ocean-based, which includes garbage disposed at sea by ships and boats, as well as fishing debris, such as plastic strapping from bait boxes, discarded fishing line or nets, and derelict fishing gear.
While discarded fishing gear takes its toll on the marine environment by entangling marine life and destroying coral reefs, it only comprises an estimated 20% of all marine debris – a staggering 80% of all marine debris stems from land-based sources. This is not that surprising, considering that around 50% of all plastics are used to manufacture sing-use items which are discarded soon after they are first used.
How Much Plastic is in the Ocean?
‘How much plastic is in the ocean’, you ask? A study published in 2017 estimated between 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans via rivers annually, with peak months being between May and October. The top 20 contributing rivers, which according to the report are mostly found in Asia, contribute around 67% of all plastics flowing into the ocean from rivers around the world.
The demand for plastic has increased dramatically over the last 70 years. According to Plastic Ocean, 300 million tons of plastic is produced globally every year. Half of that plastic is used for disposable items that will only be used once. As a result, more than 8 million tons of discarded plastic ends up in our oceans every single year. Once it is there it doesn’t readily go away.
The Worldwatch Institute estimates that the average American or European person typically uses 100 kilograms of plastic every year, most of which consists of packaging, and while it is estimated that Asians currently only use an average of 20 kilograms per person, this is expected to rise due to economic growth in the region.
Plastic Pollution Facts & Figures
- 10-20 million – Tons of plastic ends up in our oceans every year, according to a report released by the Worldwatch Institute in 2015.
- 5.25 trillion – estimated number of plastic particles currently floating around in world’s oceans.
- $13 billion – number of estimated losses per year associated with marine plastic debris due to the negative impact on marine ecosystems.
How Does Plastic Breakdown?
One of the characteristics that make plastic so popular for use in a wide range of industries is that it is extremely durable and long-lasting. However, this trait also makes it persist in the environment.
Plastics are photodegradable – meaning that they break down into smaller and smaller pieces when exposed to sunlight. Because the temperature they are exposed to in the ocean is much lower than that on land, the breakdown process takes much longer in the marine environment.
But while plastic debris is slowly breaking down in the ocean, more and more plastic is being tossed or washed into the sea – at a rate far faster than what it is breaking down.
Consequently, there is a LOT of plastic in the ocean – it comes in all shapes, forms, and sizes, and is found floating on the surface, suspended in the water column or littering the ocean floor, and eventually washes up on beaches around the world, wreaking havoc with marine life in all these ecosystems.
How Can We Avoid Plastic & Reduce Plastic Waste?
We can start by changing our own habits. Reducing your use of single-use plastics will reduce the demand. Avoid purchasing items wrapped in plastic, and using reusable produce bags, is a quick win to change what you buy in your grocery shop. Recycling properly will help reduce plastic waste – only 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide.
Think of ways to upcycle old items rather than discarding them or buying new ones. Supporting charities that are addressing Plastic Pollution (see the list at the end of this article), and signing petitions for bans, will increase your impact for the cause. Participate in (or organise) a beach/river cleanups. Wearing clothing made from natural (non-synthetic) materials, such as organic cotton, silk, and linen, will prevent plastic microfibres making their way into the ocean, and our food chain.
Here are some more tips for avoiding plastic every day:
Reusable Water Bottle – Avoid bottled water. Buy a decent water filter and a reusable stainless steel bottle or a glass bottle; There are collapsible options for the city dwellers.
Reusable Shopping Bag – Keep reusable shopping bags with you: in your car, work bag, jacket pocket, and next to your front door. They’re cheap and there are foldable/pocket options.
3 Minute Beach Tidy – If you spend time enjoying the beach and the ocean, pay mother nature a thank you. Make it your pre-surf/dive/swim ritual: spend 3 mins picking up trash from the beach.
Slow Down – Stop eating on the go. Slow down and take time to enjoy your food: eat in or take a lunchbox. Reduce your use of disposable cutlery, plates and packaging and recycle where possible.
Say No To Straws – Americans use 500 million drinking straws every day. Now imagine how that translates to the rest of the world. If you really love straws, carry a stainless steel one in your bag.
Reusable Coffee Cups – We all love our coffee and tea, but it really takes its toll on our environment. Carry a reusable coffee cup with you. There are plenty of options available, from bamboo to collapsible silicone cups to glass cups.
For more ideas on how to reduce plastic pollution, and to read the full version of this article, please visit sloactive.com.
SLO active originally created and published this article (Plastic Pollution: The Impact on Our Oceans and What We Can Do About It). It is posted here with permission.