How Does Plastic Get into the Ocean
Plastics are the most collected waste in beach and coastal areas, with at least eight million tons going into oceans every year. The most common of these are single-use items like bottles, straws, bottle caps and plastic shopping bags. If you take a minute to think about the various single-use plastics we use every week - carrier bags, water bottles, plastic wrapped sandwiches - and multiple by the 1.3 billion people living in the developed world, it becomes clear why there is a problem.
Unlike other kinds of waste, plastic doesn’t quickly decompose. Cardboard (toilet roll holders, cereal boxes) will decompose fairly quickly, in around three months. Cotton (t-shirts, reusable bags, cotton buds) take a little longer, at around five months. Since plastic is a fairly new material (created by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland in 1907), we cannot with absolute certainty measure its biodegradability, but scientists estimate that items like single-use plastic bags could take around 500 years to decompose if left in a natural environment.
This means that plastic is extremely hazardous when it makes contact with nature. Since it does not biodegrade, it infiltrates eco-systems, wreaking havoc in streams, rivers, forests and oceans. As plastic is tossed around it breaks down into micro-plastics - tiny plastic pieces less than five millimetres long, which are dangerous to aquatic life. Often these plastic fragments are mistaken for food and ingested by marine biota, including coral, fish, shellfish and plankton. The ingested plastics then cause a range of problems, such as blocking gastrointestinal tracts in fish, reducing chlorophyll absorption in plankton and lowering energy reserves and feeding capabilities in coral. In many cases, the absorption of micro-plastics is lethal.
But how do micro-plastics even make their way into oceans? Considering that most plastic pollution starts out on land, as household or commercial waste, it seems natural that the majority of plastic waste would remain in rubbish bins and landfills. However, plastic pollution typically gets picked up by the wind and blown from landfills, making its way into rivers and streams and, from there, into the sea. In fact, only around 20% of plastic waste comes from human activities at sea - mostly fishing. Ominously dubbed “ghost gear”, these bits of plastic fishing equipment sink into oceans and, like other plastics, get broken down into small digest-able pieces.
Plastics don’t have to be in micro-pieces in order to damage marine life. Single-use plastic bags, which float on the ocean’s surface, are often mistaken for jellyfish by turtles and eaten. It is common to find turtles with blocked digestive systems because their stomachs cannot digest plastic materials. Seabirds also confuse bits of floating plastic - bottle caps or straws - for food, again leading to stomachs full of plastic, which can be lethal. Since fishing equipment is designed to trap wildlife, many abandoned nets, which make their way onto ocean floors, end up trapping and killing sea creatures. In 2018, around 300 turtles were discovered dead in Mexican waters, entangled in a ghostly fishing net.
The most effective way to reduce ocean plastic is to cut down on human expenditure. At Ecoduka we sell environmentally-friendly products - masks, bags, coffee cups - to promote reusable items in place of single-use plastic ones. Plastic bags are particularly problematic, with over 500 billion used worldwide each year. They are lightweight, which means they are prone to flying off trash cans or landfill sites and floating into waterways. They are not just a problem for marine animals, but also land ones, travelling even so far as the Middle East. Camel skeletons have been found with masses of plastic bags inside of them, with the biggest weighing almost 64 kilograms - the equivalent weight of an adult orangutan.
Plastic bottles are also a problem for wildlife, with many animals mistaking the caps for food. Eating bottle caps can give turtles a condition informally called “bubble butt”, where the turtles float upside down as a result of trapped gas inside of them, formed by the decomposition of harmful debris. The turtle floats to the surface of the water, which means it will either starve, as it cannot submerge and hunt for food, or get eaten by a predator. Some wildlife will even eat the bottles themselves, with plastic bottles found trapped in the intestines of larger marine animals, such as sperm whales.
The use of plastic is so pervasive, it’s almost impossible to boycott it entirely. Cutting out single-use plastics, such as throwaway bags and bottles, is certainly the best place to start. The average family takes home around 1,500 plastic bags each year, and only one percent of these are returned for recycling. Switching to reusable shopping bags - available in supermarkets or the Ecoduka store - is a responsible alternative to single-use plastic. Our BALI bag is a cheap and long-lasting alternative, saving you the £150 cost we spend on supermarket carrier bags every year. Or try using a sustainable coffee cup to replace your daily disposable one, cutting down the plastic waste from coffee cup lids.
Although humankind has become reliant on plastic, it’s not impossible to turn back the clock. Scientists are developing greener and more sustainable plastics, which can be fully degraded in composting systems. These new plastics will have to be supported by government policies in order to make their way into the market, but eventually, and hopefully, sustainable plastics will replace harmful ones. Until that point, it is imperative that we reduce our individual plastic waste, boycotting single-use plastics wherever possible and recycling the plastics that we do use.
The individual effort of reducing single-use plastics is small compared to the greater impact on the planet. Yes, single-use plastics are convenient and, for many, a lifestyle choice. They are easy to grab at the supermarket - a bottle of water at lunch or plastic-wrapped sandwich - but consumers should always be considering the long-term impact their purchase might have. There are now over five trillion pieces of plastic waste in our oceans, killing wildlife and polluting natural ecosystems. It is up to us, as individuals, to minimise any risks we pose to the planet and its wildlife.