What you have to know about plastic in the ocean

What you have to know about plastic in the ocean


Today we will find out if the plastic is really as dangerous to the oceans as is commonly thought.

The scale of the problem

It is believed that plastic makes up most of the garbage that gets into the ocean.

When it comes to the specific amount of plastic that enters ocean waters each year, people often cite a study dating back as far as 2010 and an interval between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons. 

More recent estimates fit into this interval - other scientists and the UN also mention figures of 8.28, 10 and 12.2 million tons per year. The figures differ markedly, so it is impossible to say for sure how much plastic actually gets into the ocean now. The same applies to many other important indicators, which makes it difficult to consider the problem objectively.

One thing is certain - plastic is indeed harmful to the ocean ecosystem and many species. Animals - such as turtles, whales and birds - get tangled up in it, suffocating and dying, or accidentally eat it, which can block their digestive system and lead to death by starvation.

Thus, ocean pollution can affect the decline in marine species populations, but it is difficult to evaluate the exact extent of the harm caused specifically by plastic.

Data on the effects of small plastic particles on the human body is more controversial. Although plastic can release toxic, even carcinogenic substances, and in general microplastics in nature are already so abundant that we inevitably consume them with food and water, it is difficult to reliably prove any harm from long-term exposure. Since we have only been using plastic on a massive scale since the 1950s, it will take more time to reliably distinguish the harm from it from other causes, if any.

Who's to blame

There is a myth about huge islands made of plastic bottles and bags, which can be seen when flying across the ocean. And although plastic does amass, in reality you will not notice it, because the garbage spreads across the water and most of it is microplastics - pieces of plastic the size of a pinky fingernail.

It is because of the abundance of microplastics that there is no easy solution to the problem of ocean pollution. We can’t just collect the visible garbage in the largest clusters and save the ocean - microplastics are already everywhere, and it is impossible to track them completely.

Some suggest imposing sanctions or bans for the most polluting countries - China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. It is estimated that 80% of garbage enters the ocean from land, often via rivers, and the remaining 20% is discharged into water from ships, so it is necessary to monitor rivers more closely. However, there is no way to confirm these figures, and new data may be different.

For example, in a 2019 study, scientists concluded that most of the garbage next to an isolated island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean was waste from Asian (according to the authors - Chinese) merchant ships, rather than disposable bags and cups from land, the harm of which is constantly mentioned by the media. 

More environmentally friendly materials

It is not so clear-cut either. Unlike paper or glass, plastic is made from non-renewable and "dirty" resources - oil, coal and natural gas - and it does not decompose in nature - it simply breaks down into ever smaller particles. It cannot be recycled forever - after 10-20 cycles it will get useless anyway and will end up in a landfill, and then in our food.

Glass, just like plastic, does not decompose over time but breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.  This material, however, can be recycled as many times as you like, and over time it builds back into natural cycles - after all, it's just melted sand. With plastic - that is, a synthetic polymer - this does not happen.

However, paper and glass production cannot do without hydrocarbon fuel either, which inevitably leads to carbon dioxide emissions. This effect will be particularly noticeable if we continue to use and throw away disposable paper and glass. As a result, by wanting to solve one environmental problem (plastic), we may aggravate another (climate change).

No matter how harmful plastic is, it is not the only or main threat to marine ecosystems. Oceans are also threatened by climate change, acidification, overfishing, heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants, algal blooms and more.

Unfortunately, the problem of plastics can only be addressed in a comprehensive way - through bans, separate collection and recycling of all waste, carbon dioxide quotas and so on. We cannot do without conscious consumption, so next time instead of taking a new plastic bag at the cash desk come with an old one, and even better - with a reusable one.

The UN Global Tourism Plastics Initiative

In 2020, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) officially announced a Global Tourism Plastics Initiative last week. The initiative aims to fight plastic pollution and coordinates actions of tourism businesses in achieving this goal.

The initiative asks tourism companies and destinations to make several commitments and to take some actions by 2025. For example, it asks organizations to eliminate all unnecessary plastic, to stop using single-use objects, to move towards reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging, to invest in recycling, and to report annually about their progress towards the main goal (fighting plastic pollution).

Any business can sign the documents of the Initiatives and to become a part of the project that gives a unique opportunity for companies and destinations to unite and to help the environment.

And the environment seems to need our help. As UN reports, 300 million tons of plastic waste are generated every year. It influences landscapes and living organisms (including humans) around the world. Waters can suffer the most. According to the oneplanetnetwork.org, about 80% of all tourism is taking place in coastal areas, so, “travellers’ plastic” can easily be found in oceans and waterways.


Text: Windy.app with the assistance of Elizaveta Merinova, marine pollution and microplastics project leader at Friends of the Baltic environmental organization

Cover photo: Luke Bender / Unsplash

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