how does plastic get into the ocean?
how does plastic get into the ocean?
July 12, 2021
One of our favorite parts of summer is heading to the beach and spending time in and near the ocean. From the sound of the waves crashing on the shore, to the feeling of riding or jumping those same waves, to the joyful and gleeful laughter of children frolicking in the foam, the ocean is one of our greatest sources of life on Earth. It provides more than half of the world’s oxygen and is home to millions of species that play critical roles in marine ecosystems.
That’s why it’s extra painful to think about the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean annually—an estimated eight million tonnes. Plastic that continues to threaten the health of ecosystems, marine animals and humans. The EPA estimates that 380 billion plastic bags and wraps are used every year, requiring 12 million barrels of oil to create.
The recent banning of most plastic bags from stores is a start, not just because they aren’t biodegradable but also because these bags are often ingested by sea turtles that mistake them for jellyfish. Despite the bag ban and all of our best efforts, plastic is still an enemy of the sea for animals and marine life. A whopping 90% of all seabirds have consumed plastic. Unfortunately, there’s no one major culprit to the plastic pollution problem.
Plastics get into the ocean in several ways:
- Littering (either intentional or unintentional with wind or rain sweeping trash into the ocean)
- Illegal dumping or improper waste disposal
- Leakage from landfill sites
- Improper disposal of seemingly-innocent personal care products
Tangled in trash
Larger pieces of plastic, such as bags, six-pack rings, straws, bottles, ropes, take-out packaging, and many of the things we use in our daily lives are called macroplastics. In addition to being an eyesore when they wash up on our beaches, macroplastics can pose a threat to wildlife through entanglement or consumption, when they’re mistaken for food. But the deadly dangers of debris don’t stop there.
Breaking down again
When plastic breaks down into microplastics it becomes a different kind of threat to wildlife. Microplastics, which are made of particles smaller than five millimetres in size, constitute over 90% of surface water marine plastics. Smaller fish, or those species low on the food chain like plankton and oysters, consume microplastics when filtering water. Microplastics, and the toxins they contain, get passed upwards through the food chain, eventually getting ingested by large marine animals and humans, particularly in rural, Indigenous, and low-income communities that rely on wild foods.
Sadly, much of our toothpaste, body wash, scrubs and other sanitary items still contain microbeads, a type of microplastic that’s added as an exfoliant to health and beauty products. Microbeads are now banned in the United States, Canada and the UK, with several other countries considering bans, but they’re still an ingredient in millions of items across the globe. Most water municipalities aren’t equipped to detect or remove these microbeads, so they end up passing through the treatment process and getting into our waterways.
Be afraid of ghost gear
Beyond what we think of as typical plastic, lost, abandoned, or discarded plastic fishing gear—also called "ghost gear"—is another problem. It remains in our oceans, travelling on the currents and trapping everything in its path. Because this gear is no longer being monitored, it roams free, killing millions of marine animals as it drifts through the ocean, ultimately causing significant financial losses to fisheries as well as damage to vessels.
Committed to caring
IFAW is committed to solving the plastic pollution problem and addressing the harm it causes to individual animals and the ecosystem. One way we do this is through coastal cleanup programs which help stave off larger plastics fragmenting into smaller pieces and spreading across the globe. It’s not unlikely for plastic originating in Newfoundland, Canada to make its way to the shorelines in the UK, France, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. Of course, there are things you can also do to help reduce the plastic pile-up, from simple to more intentional.
- Don’t accept plastic straws at restaurants and bars (instead try bringing your own metal straw—see below)
- When ordering takeout, be sure to ask for no utensils
- Carry a reusable water bottle
- Recycle at home and at work (be sure to research the protocols for your area)
- Find out if you can participate in neighborhood and beach clean-ups
- Pick one day to track all of the disposable plastic you use. Can you find ways to reduce it?
- Research and choose sustainable alternatives made out of materials like wood, glass, or natural fibers such as:
- Reusable bags for shopping (keep in your car, purse, office drawer)
- Travel utensils (sometimes called Conscious Cutlery)
- Reusable snack bags and food storage wraps
- Talk to friends and family about the importance of eliminating and reducing plastic use
Lastly, if you can, please donate to IFAW and other organizations who are helping to create and maintain a healthy planet for all of us. And, if you can’t donate, sign our pledge to protect the ocean and marine animals.
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