Plastic In The Ocean
Plastic In The OceanOver the years, plastic has become more and more important to us – more than even the food we eat. From industries to homes, plastic is the only thing that is used in excess amount for almost 80% of our needs. With the increase in the use of plastic, a significant increase in its disposal into water bodies has been observed. The major water body being affected by such actions is oceans.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, 12.7 million tons of plastic wastes are disposed into oceans every year. By now, there are already about 51 trillion tons of microplastic present in oceans around the world.
What is Plastic Pollution?With the overuse of plastic and its incorrect disposal, a new term has been introduced in environmental sciences. Termed as ‘Plastic Pollution’, it stands for the pollution caused by different types of plastics in the oceans.
With the increase of marine debris (manmade materials that are discarded or lost in the oceans), plastic pollution has resulted. Marine debris mostly includes the material that are manufactured to be used only once and then thrown off. More than 70% of these ‘single-use’ materials are made of plastic. Plastic used for packaging that is used a single time alone makes 40% of the plastic produced worldwide.
A lot of other plastic items such as bottles, cans, boxes, and bags are also termed as ‘single-use’. The use of ‘single-use’ plastics has risen to such an extent that even if the whole world completely eliminates the use of plastic bags, there will be only 1% decline in the manufacturing of plastic.
Only 5% of plastic trash dumped in the sea float on the water as debris. The rest of 95% submerges beneath the surface from where it cannot be taken out easily.
Due to plastic pollution, the threat to marine plants and animals i.e. the whole aquatic life is rising at a drastic rate. Experts note that if plastic keeps increasing in the oceans at the same rate, we will have more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.
For environmentalists, plastic pollution has been regarded as another reason of ozone depletion and increasing global warming. This means that plastic pollution is giving birth to a lot of other environmental problems that are going to affect oceans and aquatic life the most.
Why is plastic so harmful?Even if we use plastic or waste it into oceans, what makes it so harmful? A number of people question this.
Here’s the answer:
Plastic is a durable material. People started manufacturing and using plastic due to its advantages and benefits. The main benefits are:
- It works well for a long time. It is highly capable of reuse.
- It is slow to degrade and is not biodegradable.
- It can be used in the production of 98% of the world’s products.
- It is buyout i.e. it can travel long distances without damaging.
- It can be given any shape and any form.
- It is lightweight and flexible.
- It is moisture resistant.
- It is relatively inexpensive than other packaging and shopping bags materials
These advantages may seem good from the manufacturing and cost saving point of view. However, from the chemical and environmental point of view, all of these benefits are themselves the major reasons why plastic is so harmful.
As it is not biodegradable, it does not waste away. Instead, it breaks down into smaller pieces over time. When a single plastic bag is thrown into an ocean and settles on the seabed, it can break down into billions of small particles over time but never ends completely.
Moreover, it changes into different shapes and forms. This means if you throw a plastic bottle away, it can change its size and shape when crushed under different things but it’s basic material stays plastic. And so, it remains dangerous no matter what shape and size.
Due to these different reasons, plastic is more dangerous to the oceans and Earth itself than any other chemically composed manmade material.
Types of plastic in the oceanNow, another main problem with plastic is that it is present in the ocean in different types. Each of its types is more harmful than the other. Plastic is categorized into different types based on the size of its particles found in the ocean.
The five types of plastic in the ocean are:
NanoplasticsNanoplastics are the smallest type of plastic found in the water. Small marine animals usually consider these particles of plastic as food and consume them. It is less than 0.001 mm in size.
Small MicroplasticsWhen plastic breaks into smaller and smaller pieces of 0.00001 mm to 1 mm in size, they are categorized as small microplastics.
Large MicroplasticsMicroplastics that range from 1 mm to 4.75 mm in size are large microplastics. These further break down due to the light and UV rays from the sun into small microplastics.
Nanoplastics, small microplastics, and large microplastics are usually invisible to the human eye.
Mesoplastics are relatively larger in size. A small can of beverage and plastic bottles can be put into the list of mesoplastics. They range from 4.75 mm to 200 mm in diameter.
MacroplasticsThese are the largest size and biggest type of plastic. Typically, the plastic which is more than 200 mm in diameter is known as macroplastic. This includes all the big shopping and packaging bags, plastic furniture, plastic boxes and literally everything made of plastic, you can think of.
All of these different types of plastic have been found in the ocean in different proportions. Unfortunately, microplastic and macroplastics constitute the most of marine debris.
Recently in December 2018, according to Great Britain’s Royal Statistical society, 90.5% of plastic made in 2018 has not been recycled. This accounts for around 6,300 million metric tonnes of plastic. Only around 12% of plastic out of 90.5% has been incinerated. The rest of around 79% made its way into landfills and water bodies.
What are the impacts of plastic in the ocean?We generally keep saying that plastic has harmful impacts on the water and marine life. Let’s dig into the detailed impacts of plastic in the ocean.
This is how plastic is wrecking havoc in the ocean:
Garbage in the oceans is increasingWhen it comes to ocean disruption, garbage and plastic are synonyms. Almost 80% of garbage disposed in the oceans is plastic. It is greatly harmful for the natural habitat of marine life. It disrupts the entire bio-cycle of aquatic plants and animals. This leads to a number of life-threatening problems for marine ecosystem.
When people do not have ways to recycle the water, it ends up in the oceans as litter. Due to this, garbage in the oceans is increasing day by day. It would not be wrong to say that people are soon going to catch garbage in their fishnets rather than fish and other sea animals.
Unfortunately, this is the garbage we keep disposing off on the coasts and waterbodies ourselves.
Aquatic animals are dying due to plastic ingestionEvery living thing from small fish to huge mammals and other amphibians in the oceans suffers direct threats due to plastic. Studies reveal that around one million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals are killed every year by ingesting plastic.
Usually, seabirds are tricked by different and bright colors of plastic and so, they ingest it as food. But they cannot swallow it and end up suffocating to death. Many seabirds found dead had their stomachs full of plastic waste. Scientists have estimated that around 60% of all seabird species have ingested plastic floating over the oceans at least once.
As per scientific reports, all types of fish consume several tonnes of plastic every year. This results in intestinal injury and ultimately, the death of these fish.
This spread risks to the whole food chain. These small fish who have ingested plastic are eaten up by bigger ones and so, the plastic enters their bodies as well. Eventually, the whole cycle suffers and dies from plastic ingestion.
You may have heard that dolphin is an intelligent marine animal. They never mistake plastic for food. However, when a dolphin eats a small fish, the plastic from the fish reaches the dolphin’s body as well. A number of dolphins have died due to excess amount of plastic in their stomachs.
Marine species are on the verge of extinctionAccording to United Nations, at least 800 marine species are affected by marine debris worldwide. A lot of marine species are already extinct by consuming garbage and plastic wastes in the oceans.
Due to increasing plastic pollution, a number of marine species are under the threat of extinction.
Plastic entangles fish and sea animalsIf some fish are smart enough to not take up plastic as food, they become the victim of entanglement. Big plastic bags and nets that are thrown or lost in the oceans usually entangle fish and other sea animals such as seahorses, sea turtles, and cetaceans. As they cannot free themselves, they eventually die.
This means whether they ingest plastic or not, presence of plastic in the ocean is itself a great threat. It is impacting aquatic life in several other ways if not consumption.
How does plastic end up in the ocean?Whether you live near the coast and go to beaches or not, plastic you use and throw away can end up in seas and oceans. Once plastic gets into the ocean, it decomposes very slowly. On average, plastic takes 100 to 150 years to decompose.
However, photo-degradation continues all the time. This results in breaking down of plastics into tiny pieces called as microplastics, as mentioned above. 80% of plastic in the ocean comes from landfills.
Here’s how plastic ends up in the ocean eventually, no matter where you throw it:
Not recycling the plasticWhen you don’t recycle and reuse the plastic and throw it into the trash, it ends up in landfills. As plastic is very lightweight, it does not stay in the landfill. It is often flown away ending up near drains and eventually making its way into seas and oceans.
Littering on the streetsWhen you throw garbage on the streets, it doesn’t stay there. Rainwater and wind usually carries away this plastic into waterbodies. As all the waterbodies lead to the ocean, so does plastic!
We often do not give importance to proper and careful disposal of waste. This is the biggest contributor to the increasing amount of garbage in the oceans.
Products flushed down the toiletsDifferent sanitary products such as wet wipes and cotton buds are flushed down the toilets on a daily basis. These products release microfibers and microplastics that are too small to be filtered out by waste plants. At last, they end up in the oceans and aquatic life take them as food.
Microbeads that are present in cosmetic and personal care products are also a form of plastic. When these products are used and washed off, the water is contaminated with microbeads and makes its way to the oceans in the end.
These are so small that a human eye cannot know if there’s anything in the water. When aquatic animal breathe in water, these particles end up in their bodies.
Natural disastersExtremely natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and mudslides contribute a lot in ending up plastic in the ocean. Heavy rains, powerful winds, and tidal surges are highly capable of taking objects with them to the ocean that are as light as a cigarette and as heavy as a furniture set.
When all of these objects are deposited in the ocean, around 80% of them are found to be plastic.
Cargos and travelling shipsCargos that often lose their way in the oceans end up wasting into the ocean. The transported products often include plastic objects such as toys, eatables or anything else in bulk.
Different fishing equipment such as fishing gear and net is often lost in the ocean which is also made of plastic. Be it from commercial fishing vessels, traveling ships, or recreational boats, what oceans get is more and more plastic every hour.
In the end, it’s definitely ‘us’ how plastic ends up in the ocean. Plastic pollution is nothing else than the result of human activities. Whether we intentionally dispose of plastic in oceans or unintentionally, controlling plastic pollution definitely depends on us.
Who is contributing the most to plastic pollution?192 countries across the globe have coasts that border Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans as well as Black and Mediterranean Seas. This means each of these states is directly contributing some or more to the plastic pollution annually. The rest of around 100 states are responsible for plastic pollution indirectly.
River plastic input to ocean by regionsAs of 2015, the region that contributed most to plastic pollution is Asia. Around 86% of plastic disposed of in the oceans comes from the rivers and seas of Asia.
China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines are the five Asian states that are responsible for 60% of plastic entering the oceans.
Out of these five states, China ranks at the top. Yangtze, Xi, Huangpu, and Dong are the top rivers of China that release plastic into the oceans. It is not unknown to anyone that the largest amounts of plastic are manufactured in China.
Ten river systems around the world account for 90% of plastic ending up in the oceans. Out of them, eight river systems are in Asia. These include the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Pearl, Mekong, Yangtze, Haihe, and Amur. Littering is common in these river systems and so, it finds its final spot in the oceans. The other two river systems are present in Egypt, namely the Nile and the Niger.
Africa is the second region that contributes most to plastic pollution. It is responsible for 7.8% of plastic in the ocean. South American region stands at the third with 4.8%, Central and North America at 0.95%, and Europe at 0.28%.
How can we reduce plastic in the ocean?According to research, the largest amount of plastic is present in North Pacific, the second largest in the Indian Ocean, and the third largest in North Atlantic.
Moreover, the Mediterranean Sea, South Pacific, and South Atlantic also have thousands of tonnes of plastic. While this plastic pollution is increasing and impacting fish, whales, sea turtles, seabirds, coral reefs, and innumerable other marine animals and plants, there needs to be something done.
It is important to reduce plastic in the ocean. Otherwise, it is humans who are going to suffer even more than aquatic life in the end.
The greatest hindrance in reducing plastic pollution is the fact that ‘plastics are forever’. They never go away. Instead, they breakdown into smaller and smaller particles whose environmental impacts are even more challenging.
However, there are still some steps we can take for reduction of plastic pollution such as:
Say no to single-use plasticsWherever you live, starting off with reducing the use of single-use plastics is an immediate step you can take. You might not release it, but it is actually going to make a lot of difference. Single-use plastics include water bottles, straws, plastic bags, disposable cups, cleaning bags, and every other plastic item that is discarded after a single use.
When a significant number of people will say no to single-use plastic items, manufacturers are going to find an alternative.
Do not litter on the streetsWhile it is already against law, you need to make sure that no one in your community is littering on the streets. Each state needs to initiate awareness campaigns on district, city, and state level to make people aware of the harmful impacts of littering on the streets.
Once people actually know the consequences, they are going to stop. However, as a single individual, you need to stop littering on streets on your own end first.
Recycle plastic itemsIf you have bought a plastic item that can be recycled, make sure they are recycled. By recycling, plastic stays out of oceans. Also, when old plastic is turned into new plastic, there will be less amount of plastic newly manufactured every year.
Currently, only 9% of plastic is being recycled. The rest of the 90% ends up waste and litter somehow.
Avoid products that contain microbeadsAs mentioned above, different cosmetic and personal care products such as face scrub, toothpaste, and body wash etc. come with microbeads. They enter oceans through the sewerage system quite easily.
It is better to use products that come without microbeads as there are a number of them still available on the market. How you can identify the presence of microbeads is by looking on the list of ingredients. If it mentions ‘polyethylene’ or ‘polypropylene’, you better leave that product right there.
This would let manufacturers know that microbeads are doing no good for people in the long run.
Participate in river cleanupsIt is mostly through rivers that garbage ends up in the oceans. Organizing or participating in a cleanup of your local beach or any other waterway can prevent garbage from getting into seas and oceans. As said, little steps create a big difference, you must not take it lightly.
Stand with the bans
Many governments and organizations around the world have banned single-use plastic items and excessive manufacturing of plastics. As a responsible citizen, you need to stand with your government and plastic pollution control organizations to support the bans.
When the people who use these items will stand against them, the manufacturers will have to stop the production.
What has been done to reduce plastic pollution until now?A number of governments and states have taken action to reduce plastic pollution. On state and global level, different efforts are being done. A number of strategies have been designed and implemented.
In June 2018, G7 states adopted Oceans Plastic Charter. In June 2019, Japan and China took significant steps towards plastic pollution in G20 Summit in Osaka. EU has also taken an initiative to ensure that every packaging material is reusable or recyclable in Europe by 2030.
However, a lot still needs to be done!