Plastic in the oceans

The proliferation of plastic products in the last 70 years or so has been extraordinary; quite simply we cannot now live without them. We are now producing nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which is for single use. More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year. link
Why is plastic problematic? Plastic as we know it has only really existed for the last 60-70 years. One of the great advantages of many types of plastic is that they’re designed to last – for a very long time. And nearly all the plastic ever created still exists in some form today. Drinks bottles are one the most common types of plastic waste. Some 480bn plastic bottles were sold globally in 2016 – that’s a million bottles per minute. link    Return to Oceans page


Latest News:

October 24 2018: The European Parliament has voted for a complete ban on a range of single-use plastics across the union in a bid to stop pollution of the oceans. MEPs also tacked on amendments to the plans for cigarette filters, a plastic pollutant that is common litter on beaches. Cigarette makers will have to reduce the plastic by 50% by 2025 and 80% by 2030.  Another ambitious target is to ensure 90% of all plastic drinks bottles are collected for recycling by 2025. Currently, bottles and their lids account for about 20% of all the sea plastic.  The measure still has to clear some procedural hurdles, but is expected to go through. The EU hopes it will go into effect across the bloc by 2021. link



See Plastic Oceans Foundation and Plastic Pollution Coalition  

August 2018 – New link added:  Guide to marine plastic pollution provides 25 links to articles covering all aspects of the danger plastic pollution causes to marine life, birds, and humans in the food chain.             See also What You Can Do section on plastic recycling


June 2017: Asian nations to act on plastic waste. It is estimated that between 5 and 13 million tonnes of plastics flow into the world’s oceans annually. Much of it is ingested by birds and fish. A recent paper said much of the marine plastic often originates far from the sea, especially in countries which have developed consumer economies faster than their ability to manage waste. The Helmholtz Center in Germany, estimated that 75% of land-borne marine pollution comes from just ten rivers, predominantly in Asia. link

December 2017: $180bn investments since 2010. Fossil fuel companies are among those who have ploughed more than $180bn since 2010 into new “cracking” facilities that will produce the raw material for everyday plastics from packaging to bottles, trays and cartons. The new facilities will help fuel a 40% rise in plastic production in the next decade. link

December 2017: Over 200 nations commit to ending ocean plastic waste. Over 200 countries signed a UN resolution in Nairobi, to eliminate plastic waste in the world’s oceans. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, there will be more plastic by weight in the world’s oceans than fish by 2050 if current trends continue. link  (Also: The resolution calling for targets to tackle ocean plastic waste rejected by US, China and India. Instead of targets, the resolution “urges all actors to step up actions to by 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds” and “encourages” member states to “prioritise policies” that “avoid marine litter and micro plastics entering the marine environment.” link

December 2017: Why is plastic problematic? Plastic as we know it has only really existed for the last 60-70 years. One of the great advantages of many types of plastic is that they’re designed to last – for a very long time. And nearly all the plastic ever created still exists in some form today. Drinks bottles are one the most common types of plastic waste. Some 480bn plastic bottles were sold globally in 2016 – that’s a million bottles per minute. link  

December 2017: Plastics industry knew its products were polluting oceans by 1970s, then spent decades denying responsibility and fighting regulation. A new report released by the Center for International Environmental Law examines the plastics industry’s knowledge of the ocean plastics problem, answering the question: When did industry become aware of the problems caused by their products, and what did they do about it? link / report link  

February 2015: Study of nations dumping plastic into oceans. In a landmark study, scientists have estimated that millions of tons of plastic waste go into the sea worldwide every year, with middle-income nations, including the Philippines, shown to be among the top contributors. Researchers from the University of Georgia calculated that out of the 275 million metric tons (MMT) of plastic waste coastal countries have produced in 2010, between 4.8 and 12.7 MMT entered the ocean. The figures were calculated by analyzing waste sources and the amount of garbage churned out by people living within 50 kilometers from the coasts of 192 countries bordering the sea, and then factoring in population density and economic status. China emerged as the top contributor followed by Indonesia. link

December 2014: 270,000 tons of plastic floating in oceans. The most comprehensive study to date on plastic pollution around the world suggests over 5 trillion pieces of plastic, mostly “micro-plastics” measuring less than 5 cm. and weighing almost 270,000 tons are causing damage throughout the food chain. link

(Global agreements to take action July 2017) World’s strongest ban on microbeads proposed. U.K. Environment Secretary in calling microbeads a “serious threat” to wildlife, pledged to explore new methods of reducing the amount of plastic, in particular plastic bottles, entering our seas. Microbeads, which can be replaced with natural alternatives, are just one type of microplastic pollution of the oceans that is causing immense concern because of the harmful effects on marine wildlife. link

June 2017: Asian nations make plastic oceans promise. At a UN oceans summit, delegates from China, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines said they would work to keep plastics out of the seas. Some of the promises are not yet formalised and environmentalists say the measures proposed are not nearly urgent enough. Meeting in New York, they said it was part of a clear international shift against ocean pollution. link

February 2017: UN declares war on ocean plastic. UN Environment launched today an unprecedented global campaign to eliminate major sources of marine litter: microplastics in cosmetics and the excessive, wasteful usage of single-use plastic by the year 2022. The Clean Seas Campaign is urging governments to pass plastic reduction policies; targeting industry to minimize plastic packaging and redesign products; and calling on consumers to change their throwaway habits – before irreversible damage is done to our seas. link

July 2014: Plastic fundamentally changing the composition of the oceans. A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that at least 88% of the Earth’s ocean surface is polluted with plastic debris. A large percentage of it has been (and continues to be) eaten by marine mammals of all size, including fish. The study explains that when plastic is floating around in the open ocean, waves and radiation from the sun can fragment it into smaller and smaller particles until it becomes so small that it looks like fish food. link

February 2008: The world’s rubbish dump: a tip that stretches from Hawaii to Japan. A “plastic soup” of waste floating in the Pacific Ocean is growing at an alarming rate and now covers an area twice the size of the continental United States. The vast expanse of debris, in effect the world’s largest rubbish dump, is held in place by swirling underwater currents. This drifting “soup” stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan. According to UNEP (UN Environment Programme), plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals. Plastic is believed to constitute 90% of all rubbish floating in the oceans.  About one-fifth of the junk is thrown off ships or oil platforms. The rest comes from land. link

 Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The name “Pacific Garbage Patch” has led many to believe that this area is a large and continuous patch of easily visible marine debris items such as bottles and other litter, akin to a literal island of trash that should be visible with satellite or aerial photographs. While higher concentrations of litter items can be found in this area, along with other debris such as derelict fishing nets, much of the debris is actually small pieces of floating plastic that are not immediately evident to the naked eye. The debris is continuously mixed by wind and wave action and widely dispersed both over huge surface areas and throughout the top portion of the water column. It is possible to sail through the “garbage patch” area and see very little or no debris on the water’s surface. It is also difficult to estimate the size of these “patches,” because the borders and content constantly change with ocean currents and winds. Regardless of the exact size, mass, and location of the “garbage patch,” man-made debris does not belong in our oceans and waterways and must be addressed. link 

September 2018:  Great Pacific Garbage Patch clean-up project begins. The aim is to halve the amount of pollution in the patch every five years so that by 2040 almost all of it will be gone. It’ll take three weeks for the system to be towed out to the Great Garbage Patch some 2,000km off the coast of California. The project has a budget of at least $20 million. The first sense of how it’s performing should be clear late 2018. Some experts worry that the effort is a distraction from the more pressing task of stopping more plastic getting into the sea in the first place, and that the operation may cause real harm to marine life. link

March 2018: ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ – far more debris than thought. The patch of detritus is more than twice the size of France and is up to 16 times larger than previously estimated. The sprawling patch of detritus spans 617,763 sq miles, and contains at least 79,000 tons of plastic. link
“Great Pacific Garbage Patch” – Project Kaisei is monitoring the North Pacific Gyre.

 Cleaning up plastic pollution Boyan Slat, a Dutch former aerospace engineering student, said his plastic-capturing concept can clean half the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in a decade. Here are two videos explaining his ideas for cleaning up the plastic already in the oceans.
Watch the 4-minute short and the 
16-minute TED video.  (September 2014) The 20-year-old with a plan to rid the sea of plastic – video link    

(June 2016) Dutch prototype clean-up boom brings Pacific plastics solution a step closer – link

December 2011: Japan streets ahead in global plastic recycling. Japan is one of the most successful countries in the world for recycling plastics. In 2010, 77% of plastic waste was recycled, up from 73% in 2006 and 39% in 1996. The country has passed several recycling laws to address the disposal and treatment of plastic waste since 1997, when businesses and consumers were obliged to separate plastic waste for the first time. link

March 2017: “A Voice for the Planet” video. Plastic is used for everything these days. While plastics are very useful, they are also so cheep and prolific we have created a disposable society. Using something once, and throwing things away is creating a tremendous problem for the planet. It has to stop! – view