Traveling plastics: how does plastic waste end up in the ocean?

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We are reaching a sad milestone. If we do not change our plastic use and recycling behavior, there will soon be more plastic than fish in our oceans. Just imagine swimming in an ocean surrounded by plastic cups and packaging. Some already know this horror story first hand, while swimming in the sea or walking at polluted beaches like Kamilo Beach Hawai – a beach full of plastic debris from Japan, Russia, the US and other countries.

We call it a terrible plastic soup. And we are not hungry.

What is plastic soup, how does plastic waste end up in the ocean? And what can we do about it? This article will answer all these questions and give you facts about plastic that you probably didn’t know yet.

Plastic soup explained 

Plastic is a relative ‘new’ problem, as it was invented in the late 19th century and production took off around 1950. And that late invention is probably a good thing. Imagine that our ancestors already produced plastic, then the world we live in today would look a lot different. Something like a big plastic dystopia. 
 
Nowadays, plastic is integrated in a lot of products we use everyday. Plastic has a very wide range of properties such as being lightweight, durable, flexible and inexpensive to use. This has led to a profound widespread use and more than half of the plastics being produced are very recent. More than halve of the plastics produced is since 2004. Plastic production has become one of the most pressing environmental issues, as rapidly increasing production of disposable plastics overwhelms our ability to deal with them. Hence, we call this the plastic soup. 
 

How big is the plastic problem?

Let’s not lie. Our plastic problem is big. But it is hard to say how big. This is because only in the recent 25 years, the plastic pollution has been a phenomenon and is still being studied. 

Furthermore, plastic production is still increasing. Figures about how much is actually recycled worldwide are not easy to come by. But scientist from around the world are trying to get a grip on both the extent and the consequences of the plastic soup in the last years.

How much plastic is produced a person?

According to the plastic Atlas, between 1950 and 2017, a total of 9,2 bilion tonnes of plastic is produced. You do the math. That is more than a ton per living person on the earth.

Out of all these plastics, less than 10 percent of all the plastic is recycled. That leaves a lot for ending up in our environment and oceans. So how does plastic go from buying in the supermarket to ending up in the ocean? 

Traveling plastics

It is no shocker: the plastics we use has a high chance of ending up in the ocean. Even if you live a hundred miles from the coast, the plastic bottle you throw away in the bin can make it all the way into the sea. 

Unfortunately, when plastics do end op in de oceans, it is very hard to decompose. This is a very slow proces. Normally, it ends up in smaller pieces known as microplastics – Like the PFAS we mentioned earlier. And this is bad for a lot of reasons. As it enters the marine food chain and even ends up in the soil where we grow our foods. So how does plastic end up in the ocean?

There are three main ways for plastic to end up in the ocean, but the main take away is this: it is us. We humans are the reason, whether we mean it or not. 

Plastics end up in the ocean because of: 

1: Throwing it in the non-recycle bin
2: Littering
3: Products that go down the drain

1: Throwing it in the non-recycle bin

Plastics that we throw away in the bin normally ends up in a landfill when it is not seperated. Plastic is often blown away, because it’s so lightweight. So when transporting to the landfill or on the landfill plastic is often blown away and cluttered around drains and rivers. Only to end up in the sea.

2: Littering

Litter on the streets is a big starting point for a lot of plastics in the ocean. As rainwater and wind carries plastic waste into rivers and drains. What eventually leads to the ocean. 

Littering also includes illegal dumping of waste and improper waste disposal. This is a big contributor for the enormous pile of plastic surge in our oceans. 

3: Products that go down the drain

A lot of sanitary products are still flushed down toilets. This includes cotton swabs, wet wipes etc. But microfibres are also released into waterways when we wash our clothes with laundry detergent for instance. These small parts are too small to be filtered by waste water plants and eventually end up being consumed by small marine species and in our ocean. There is however a good small movement going for this specific plastic problem, as there is a ban now on microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics and cleaning products. So for example the cotton swabs will no longer end up in the ocean, and hence also not our food chain.  

Did you know? Scientists have discovered microplastics embedded deep into the Artic Ice, emphasizing just how far the issue is spreading. 

 

The result of the plastic soup in our oceans

The bottom line is this: the growing problem with plastics in our oceans is becoming more and more apparent as we see the disturbing impacts. We see it first hand on the beach or on television, seeing it spreading a dark plastic catastrophe on both marine wildlife as our marine ecosystem. And as a result, plastics ends up in our direct environment and even our bellies, as we consume microplastics now. 

Marine species like turtles, fish, whales and seabirds become trapped and suffocated in the abundance of plastics. Recent studies show that 100% of the marine turtles are now containing plastic pollutions in their body. For whales this was 59%. Seals 36% and seabirds 40%. This indicates that our marine life is on the verge of a crisis. 

Although these statistics and recent publications are frightening, there are initiatives and organizations that are helping to solve or minimize the problem. Together we can try to reduce our plastic footprint. Us, for example with our water dispensers that cut out plastic usage in offices. Or organizations like Prevented Ocean Plastic and the Bubblebarier, that help people cleaning the coastlines and preventing plastic pollution. 

8 Facts about plastic that you probably didn’t know. 

 

1  

In 1978, another sad milestone was reached. Coca-Cola was the first to replace the iconic glass bottle with the plastic ones. Setting the standard for disposable cups, plastic plates and other utensils in our daily lives.

2

Plastic goes hand in hand with certain health risks. An array of chemicals is added to the base plastic to give it the desired characteristics. And plastic microplastics are found everywhere. Some of these chemicals and microplastics are already found in our rivers and nature. Like the PFAS

3

Did you know that we wear plastic? Polyester and other synthetic fibers are made from petroleum or natural gas. Making a polyester shirt may emit between 3.8 and 7.1 kilograms of CO2.

4

Plastic speeds up climate change. If current trends continue, plastics will have caused around 56 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions by 2050. In other words: making plastic could cost 10% to 13% off the remaining carbon budget to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees celsius. 

5

In 2018, over 1.13 trillion items of packaging (most of them plastics) were used for food and drinks in the EU alone. Agriculture uses around 6.5 million tonnes of plastic worldwide each year.

6

Only a handful of multinationals control the global market for plastic, which is flooded by cheap fracked gas* from the United States. Ineos is Europe’s biggest plastics producer, and invests billions to import feedstock from the USA to make plastics in Europe. 

* Not sure what fracked gas is? Read more about it here.

7

For decades, the plastics industry has resisted efforts to limit plastic production and the damage it causes. It invests billions of dollars and pays armies of lobbyists to win subsidies, prevent regulation and trying to shift the blame to consumers and poor countries in Asia.

8

In 2018, China was the first to ban the import of plastic waste. Other countries also refusing to act as the world’s garbage bin and are sending waste back. The four biggest exporters of plastic are the USA, Japan, Germany and the UK.

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