How Does Plastic End Up in the Ocean?
Seeing plastic on the beach or floating in the ocean while swimming has become as common-place as finding shells in the sand or seaweed on the waves. We might pick up the trash, but how often do we give thought to how the plastic ended up there in the first place? There are endless ways we dump plastic into our waters and we've outlined some of those below.
80% of plastic flows from land-based sources and 20% is littered at sea from fishing and shipping boats.
Wind & Waves
Plastic, such as straws and cups, left on beaches in coastal communities and seaside resorts is washed into the ocean by tides, or blown in by wind.
Storms & Runoff
Wind and water pick up litter from overflowing trash cans and outside bins, carrying them to storm drains or directly to the sea. Poor transport of waste by vehicle and boat, especially near rivers and the coast results in increased water pollution.
Poor Wastewater Management
Poor sewage and wastewater management results in pollution being flushed directly into the water system. A lot of wet wipes and sanitary products often contain plastic, so they too contribute to plastic and micro-plastic pollution.
What are single-use plastics?
Single-use plastics are meant to be disposed of right after use and are made primarily from fossil fuel-based chemicals.
The production and disposal of plastic has big, negative environmental impacts and is used for once, normally for a short period of time.
These are commonly used for packaging and service ware (bottles, wrappers, straws, bags).
They have replaced paper and glass staples, such as grocery bags and milk jugs, because plastic is lighter, more durable, and more affordable.
In the last 15 years, over 4 billion metric tons of plastics have been produced!
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are small plastic pieces, less than 5 mm in diameter, which can be harmful to ocean and aquatic life. These come from a variety of sources, including from larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller and smaller pieces.
Household sources: cosmetic products (toothpaste), fibers from synthetic clothing
Industrial sources: plants and factories where proper management is not in place or accidental leakage occurs.
Tires are also a very big source of microplastics
Microplastics have been detected in organisms as small as plankton and as large as whales; in commercial seafood; and even in drinking water!
Standard water treatment facilities cannot remove all traces of microplastics.
Why is ‘biodegradable plastic’ not the solution?
Biodegradable plastics need to be sent to an industrial compost facility to successfully degrade. Scientists have argued that existing industry standards are insufficient and cannot predict the biodegradability of "compostable" plastic.
Key concerns are:
Confusion over terms
Lack of appropriate recycling or composting infrastructure
Toxicity of degradable plastics
While "bio-plastics" may cause less harm to the environment to create, these are still single-use items that have a long-term impact on the environment. Switching to reusable alternatives is still the best option!
You can make a difference!
As you can see, there are many ways that pesky plastic gets ends up in our waters. And it's even clearer that the plastic pollution crisis requires us all to do our part. Picking up that chip wrapper up at the beach is the last step in a long cycle of the life of plastic; we urge everyone to intervene sooner to prevent that trash from ending up there in the first place. If going plastic free isn't ideal for your family, you can start always start small and participate in Plastic Free July. You might even find it easier than expected! Either way it's up to all of us to do our parts in order to make a difference, no matter how small.
Guardian News and Media. (2019, October 1). How worried should we be about microplastics? The Guardian. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/02/how-worried-should-we-be-about-microplastics
Thomas Neitzert, Professor emeritus. (2021, November 16). Why compostable plastics may be no better for the environment. The Conversation. Retrieved March 8, 2022, from https://theconversation.com/why-compostable-plastics-may-be-no-better-for-the-environment-100016
How harmful are microplastics? Science Learning Hub. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2022 from https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/2809-how-harmful-are-microplastics
How does plastic end up in the ocean? WWF. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2022, from https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/how-does-plastic-end-ocean#:~:text=Rainwater%20and%20wind%20carries%20plastic,plastic%20surge%20in%20our%20seas.