Plastic in the seas is not just unsightly trash swirling around in giant gyres like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As it circulates in the water, plastic slowly breaks into smaller and smaller particles, known as microplastics. As we now understand, these plastics pick up chemical contamination as they travel. When marine animals ingest them, both the chemicals in plastic and the pollutants adhering to them wind up entering the food chain. Yes, that means humans eat them, too.
A 2014 study suggests that the world’s oceans contain over 5 trillion pieces of plastic, with nearly two trillion in the North Pacific. Because the study did not look at particles smaller than .33mm, the actual numbers are likely far greater. Lead author of the study Marcus Eriksen reports that additional “trillions of nanoparticles are probably sequestered in sediment on the seafloor or seashore.”
Environmental advocates have started using the word “crisis” to describe the extent of ocean plastic pollution. Most people haven’t yet perceived plastic pollution as a crisis, or even connected the dots between their own habits and the immense amounts of plastic now circulating in the environment. You can help change that.
How does plastic end up in the ocean?
The North Pacific Ocean is the world’s most plastic-polluted, followed by the Indian Ocean and the North Atlantic. Some of this plastic comes from near the shore, when winds pick it up and deposit in the ocean. Much more comes from further inland, brought by rivers from urban centers to the sea. An estimated 93% of river-borne plastic waste comes from just 10 rivers, eight in Asia and two in Africa.
Though insufficient pollution control in these countries is part of the problem, it’s vital to understand that much of the plastic washing into the ocean originates in North America and Europe. American and European countries supply the plastic used in great quantities in Asia for things like packaging and plastic shopping bags. Thailand, for example, goes through an estimated 200 billion plastic bags per year. (For comparison, the US, with more than four times the population, uses half as many annually.)
Plastic packaging is the norm in these countries, far more than their waste management systems can handle. But some of the plastic waste that researchers find was used by Americans and Europeans before ending up in Asian rivers.
Though insufficient pollution control in these countries is part of the problem, much of the plastic washing into the ocean originates in North America and Europe.
The complex process of plastics recycling has long been far cheaper to outsource to Asia than to deal with domestically, so most of the developed world’s plastic waste has traveled great distances to get recycled into new plastic goods that get shipped back — and eventually tossed again.
The world’s plastic waste problem has only gotten more complicated since China, long the largest recycler of plastics, decided to reject plastic waste sent from the west due to contamination concerns. Until 2018 China processed up to two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste. When they banned the import of all but the purest plastics, smaller Asian countries began accepting more of the worldwide trade in plastic waste, but the volume is so large, they were quickly overwhelmed. Much of that plastic waste wound up loose in the environment.
Why is there so much plastic in the first place?
Recycling, even when China accepted our plastic waste, has never put much of a dent in the plastic problem. Less than 10% of all the plastic ever made — to date an estimated 6.3 billion tons — has been recycled. Now that China no longer imports plastic waste, plastics have piled up at recycling centers and are being landfilled or burned, where their potent cocktail of chemicals enter the air and water.
While there are some efforts afoot to improve recycling rates, most experts counsel that recycling plastic was never a solution — it’s too complicated, too expensive, and there’s simply too much plastic to deal with effectively. Putting the emphasis on recycling also perpetuates the myth that the planet can support our ever-increasing use of disposable plastics.
The responsibility for plastic pollution, says Oceana’s chief policy officer Jackie Savitz, ultimately rests with the producers. The dramatic increase in plastic use, she explains, is “driven by corporations’ insistence on packaging their products in plastics.” By “not giving people any choices,” she maintains, “they’re essentially forcing plastics into our hands in order to reduce their costs.”
Savitz believes it’s critical that “people understand what’s really happening on plastics, because I think there’s a lot of misconceptions out there.” Companies producing plastic want us to think that “if only we would be better at waste disposal this problem would go away, and the truth of the matter is it’s not really a waste disposal problem, it’s a plastic production problem.”
Research tells us that the volume of plastic used and tossed every day cannot be effectively dealt with. The solution is to phase out plastics as soon as possible.
She notes that “it’s convenient for the companies that are creating the problem to make it seem like it’s just that we’re a bunch of litterbugs,” when in fact research tells us that the volume of plastic used and tossed every day cannot be effectively dealt with. The solution, says Savitz, is to phase out plastics as soon as possible.
Cheap and ubiquitous plastics have led to a revolution in cultural norms about disposability, so reshaping those norms is a top priority. As governments and corporations have realized the scale of the problem they have helped to create, new regulations about single-use items like straws, plastic bags, and polystyrene containers have taken hold around the world. Anti-straw campaigns are helping to raise awareness of the consequences of our throwaway culture, and more people, corporations, and municipalities are saying no to pervasive single-use plastics, seeking smarter plastic alternatives.
National Geographic has created a running list of actions taken to slash plastic use worldwide. The EU’s recent decision to ban a number of single-use plastics is one promising step; another is the commitment from 250 major corporations to shift away from single-use packaging. Savitz approaches corporate commitments with caution, finding them “uninspiring at best and greenwashing at worst.” It’s important consumers hold companies accountable to honor these commitments.
Can we remove plastic from the ocean?
A number of ocean plastic clean-up initiatives are underway, but removing visible plastic garbage from the sea is only a small part of dealing with the problem. Plastic breaks down into such tiny particles that it’s dispersed virtually everywhere in our oceans, even to the deepest parts of the sea floor. So though ridding the Great Pacific Garbage Patch of trash — a monumental task no one has yet successfully accomplished — is a step in the right direction, it won’t deal with the problem of ever-increasing plastics entering the ocean.
“We’re not going to solve the problem by pulling it out of whale stomachs or cleaning it up off the beaches,” says Savitz. “We’re only going to solve it by not sending there in first place.”
To do that, we need to stop making and tossing so much plastic. Oceana is one of more than 1400 groups worldwide working together on the Break Free From Plastic campaign, which aims to move corporations away from plastic and shift the cultural narrative on plastic use.
Several nonprofits are spearheading mass educational campaigns, which you can support with social media sharing and financial contributions. You can find a number of resources for attacking the problem of plastic pollution in your town, school, or organization at the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
What can you do to help reduce plastic pollution?
Savitz says the most important move you can make to help cut plastic pollution is letting the companies you buy from know that you want them to use alternatives to plastic. Vote with your dollars by buying from companies working toward a circular economy, and write letters to companies that use plastic urging them to find alternatives.
Savitz recommends we flex our “social media muscle” to demand non-plastic options at every opportunity. “There’s no reason why everybody can’t be tweeting to their favorite company, ‘how come I couldn’t get your products without buying plastic?’” she points out. “It’s really important for individuals to demand from companies plastic-free choices. They should have the freedom to choose a plastic-free beverage, or a plastic-free candy bar, a plastic-free lunch.” People “should be given those options for the same price,” Savitz emphasizes. “I don’t think we can win this by only appealing to the rich.”
“There’s no reason why everybody can’t be tweeting to their favorite company, ‘how come I couldn’t get your products without buying plastic?’” –Jackie Savitz, Chief Policy Officer, Oceana
In addition to writing the corporations you buy from, speak to managers at your favorite local eateries about cutting plastic from their daily operations. Point out that they can save money by not handing out plastic items like straws, utensils, and sauce packets. See if they might be willing to offer discounts to people who bring their own travel mugs rather than getting single-use cups for their daily coffee fix. Currently, far more people still unthinkingly say yes to single-use plastics, but as awareness grows so will the number of folks who refuse them. As more of these shifts occur, throwaway plastic will become less normalized.
Another important step you can take is to eliminate as much single-use plastic as you can from your own life in order to send the message to companies that you want less of it in the world and to reshape norms around plastic use. For instance:
- Bring your own reusable shopping and produce bags
- Use refillable containers or bags at the bulk bins
- Replace plastic wrap and plastic snack bags with reusable alternatives
- Avoid purchasing beverages in single-use bottles or cups by refilling your own bottle or cup
- Swap out plastics in the bathroom with zero waste alternatives
- Choose non-plastic options when you buy packaged goods whenever possible. For more ideas on how to do this, read How to Reduce Plastic Pollution in 15 Easy Swaps
Importantly, while these shifts in your habits will greatly reduce your own use of plastic, you’ll also be modeling plastic-free living for others. Take the opportunity to educate friends and family about how these behavioral shifts prevent plastic pollution, protect you from harmful plastic chemicals, and even save you money. As people notice these alternatives to wasteful habits, we’ll hopefully see a decline in the amount of waste generated.
Let’s ‘Unplastic the World’
One company that’s attacking the plastic problem at its source is Luumi, which makes platinum silicone bags, straws, bowls, and lids. Between April 22 and May 22, Luumi will donate reusable platinum silicone bags (that turn into bowls) to Thailand for every purchase made through Ilovesciencestore.com and luumi.com to help cut the country’s plastic waste. These reusable bags replace single-use plastic take-out bags and containers. Each one equals 100 plastic bags removed from circulation. See more in the infographic above.
Working together, we can all be part of the solution and turn the tide on plastic waste.