Oh, the Places Your Plastic Waste Will Go
We’re nowhere close to stemming the tide of plastic leaching into the ocean every day. An average of 12 million tons of trash bags, cups, straws, microbeads, and other plastics are entering the marine environment each year, creating a worldwide crisis affecting just about every living creature in the ocean.
A new report created by Eunomia, a research and consulting firm in the United Kingdom, outlines how plastics are getting into the oceans, where they are ending up, and why simple beach cleanups can have a big impact on the overall health of the ocean.
The bulk of plastic litter in the ocean—more than 80 percent—comes from land-based sources, according to Eunomia. The main contributors are large plastic items, such as water bottles, straws, cups, and packaging, which break down over time into smaller and smaller pieces called “secondary microplastics.” Scientists have found bits of plastic in the stomachs of a range of wildlife, including whales, sea turtles, and even coral reefs. A stomach full of plastic can result in digestive tract issues, malnutrition, and death for a number of species.
The rest of the plastic-pollution load originates mostly from discarded fishing nets made of synthetic material, as well as plastic pellets lost at sea while being shipped across the ocean on large cargo vessels.
As for “primary microplastics”—microbeads used in consumer products, such as face wash and toothpaste; plastic fibers from synthetic-blend clothing; and raw plastic pellets—Eunomia’s analysis of existing research found that between 0.5 million and 1.4 million tons of microplastics are entering the ocean every year, including more than 270,000 tons derived from vehicle tire debris.
While many media reports focus on the amount of plastic debris visibly swirling in areas like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the report found that “barely 1 percent of marine plastics are found floating at or near the ocean surface.” More than 94 percent of all plastic that enters the ocean sinks to the ocean floor, Eunomia found, and becomes all but impossible to recover.
Chris Sherrington, principal consultant at Eunomia, highlighted the importance of beach cleanups in combating ocean plastics, because this pulls the material out of the environment before it falls to the ocean floor.
“Despite the high profile of projects intended to clean up plastics floating in mid-ocean, relatively little actually ends up there,” Carrington wrote in the report. “[The] amount estimated to be on beaches globally is five times greater. While some may have been dropped directly, and other plastics may have been washed up, what is clear is that there is a ‘flux’ of litter between beaches and the sea.”
“By removing beach litter,” Sherrington concluded, “we are therefore cleaning the oceans.”