The Plague That Is Ocean Plastic

Is there more plastic in the ocean than fish?

Plastic pollution in the ocean is not news, it is a persistent issue that spans years in the making. Today, 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments is plastic. On average, an American will discard around 185 lbs of plastic per year, of the total discarded plastic only 5–9% gets recycled, which results in the 8 million metric tons of plastic that end up in the ocean on a yearly basis. Single-use food and beverage containers are the most common types of marine debris found, with 90% of it being plastic and Styrofoam. If nothing changes, it is expected that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

What is ocean-bound plastic?

The term “ocean-bound plastic” refers to mismanaged plastic waste that is generated in coastal regions within 50 km of the coastline and is at risk of ending up in the ocean. Of this plastic waste, 31.9 million metric tons of it are mismanaged and end up in the ocean. A 2017 coastal cleanup report by Ocean Conservancy International found 52K plastic grocery bags, 4.3 million plastic lids, and 1.5 million plastic beverage bottles among the large amounts of plastic waste reported. An estimated 20% of plastic waste in the ocean comes from marine sources such as fishing nets, ropes, and lines. Of all primary plastics that end up in the ocean, the IUCN estimates that 35% come from textiles, making it the largest source of microplastics followed by those from the degradation of tires, which accounts for 28%.

Consumption and pollution don’t always go hand in hand, the level of mismanagement has a lot to do with the infrastructure that is in place. Around half of all plastic waste that ends up in the ocean can be traced back to five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. These are all countries that are experiencing economic growth and increased consumerism but have not yet implemented an efficient waste management infrastructure. Additionally, it must be taken into account how much of the plastic waste in these countries was actually sent over from more developed countries like the United States and countries in Europe, most of which is now sent to Southeast Asia ever since China banned the import of plastic waste. The vast amounts of plastic that make their way into the ocean meet the ocean currents, resulting in five gigantic gyres where plastic collects. To get a sense of really how much plastic is in the ocean, let it be noted that one of these gyres, the Great Pacific Gyre is 1.6 million kilometers squared. As plastic remains in the ocean, sunlight photodegrades it into small pieces, which are then ingested by aquatic life and seabirds. This causes a myriad of health problems for these creatures as well as for us, as the toxins leached from these plastics are biomagnified throughout the food chain.

What ocean plastic is recovered?

When it comes to the recovery of ocean plastic, in particular, there are a variety of challenges. For one, if the plastic has been in a marine environment for an extended amount of time, it degrades to a point where it is too difficult to recycle. Of most marine trash, HDPE products tend to be the only type that is hard enough to recycle into another product and isn’t degraded as quickly by prolonged exposure to salt and sunlight. However, HDPE is a difficult material to rework and tends to only be recycled into a limited list of products. When it comes to ocean-recovered plastic, you deal with the issues of degradation as well as figuring a way to recover the plastic that is floating at the surface without further harming marine life in the area. The terms, “ocean-bound” and “ocean-recovered” are different terms that should not be used interchangeably but often are when it comes to brands using these terms as a sustainable marketing strategy. The term “Ocean-recovered plastic” refers to a plastic that is directly removed from the ocean, while “ocean-bound” refers to a plastic that could have potentially ended up in the ocean.

Who is doing something about it?

Solutions to this problem are geared towards intercepting coastal plastic waste, cutting the production of virgin plastic, and generating a more circular plastic economy. There are a number of organizations taking on the ocean plastic challenge and working to both remove plastic from the ocean and keep it from entering the ocean in the first place. Those like 4Ocean and the Plastic Bank work to take ocean plastic and repurpose it so that it gets recycled. Others like Parley for the Ocean and SoulBuffalo have worked to create a collaborative network to seek and implement solutions.

The organization 4Ocean works to optimize technology to prevent, intercept, and remove plastic from the ocean and coastlines by implementing teams that will pick the plastic by hand, with fishing nets, vessels, and skimmers. They will also establish boom barrier systems to prevent plastic from entering the ocean from other waterways. The collected plastic is then sent to a base where it gets sorted and sent to their recycling partners. Plastic Bank is also working to get plastic waste from coastlines to recycling facilities by not only finding new applications for recycled plastic but also working with informal waste pickers to help them earn a better living while removing plastic waste. Parley seeks to create a movement with creators, thinkers, and leaders in order to raise awareness and collaborate on projects. They have succeeded in working with brands like Adidas to create products using discarded fishing lines and nets. SoulBuffalo created the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network, which resulted in key projects like the Waste Picker Collaborative, with the goal of connecting CPGs and brands with waste picking community leaders in order to source materials from them while also improving the waste pickers wages and benefits via corporate engagement.

Plastic pollution in the ocean is a challenge that is far from being solved and requires a joint effort as well as a big change to consumer habits. Additionally, ocean-bound and ocean-recovered plastic is only a fraction of the problem, and though projects focused on it have been successful in garnering support and making people more aware of the issue, it leaves a lot of plastic waste out of the picture.

Sources:

“Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean”, Jenna R. Jambeck et al., Feb.2015: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768

https://www.parley.tv/oceanplastic#re_copy-of-ocean-plastic-program

https://oceanworks.co/pages/about-oceanworks

https://www.csiro.au/en/Research/OandA/Areas/Marine-resources-and-industries/Marine-debris

https://oceanconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/2017-ICC_Report_RM.pdf

https://ocean.si.edu/conservation/pollution/upcycled-ocean-plastic

https://ocean.si.edu/conservation/pollution/marine-plastics#:~:text=It%20is%20the%20most%20widely,and%20some%20bottles%20and%20caps.

https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/marine-plastics

https://www.unenvironment.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/

https://www.oceanculture.life/guardian/oceanworks

https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/ocean_plastics/

--

--

At MikaCycle we enable the sourcing and purchasing of quality and traceable recycled plastics for manufacturers and brands. https://mikacycle.com/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
MikaCycle

At MikaCycle we enable the sourcing and purchasing of quality and traceable recycled plastics for manufacturers and brands. https://mikacycle.com/