PLASTICS LIFECYCLE | CHAPTER 5 | HOW DOES PLASTIC WASTE END UP IN THE SEA?
It was a sad but important day when a Cuvier’s beaked whale was beached on Sotra in Norway with 30 plastic bags in its stomach. Those of us who have been working on ocean issues for some years know that this is not a new problem. Plastic pollution in the ocean was documented by researchers as far back as 1970. For everyone else, 2017 was probably the year when their eyes were seriously opened. The plastic problem is now so huge that it can be observed on beaches in all corners of the world.
Every year, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean. A product that was once lauded as a stroke of genius has become one of the fastest growing environmental problems in the world. It can be hard to imagine how much 8 million tons actually is. To put it in perspective, it’s roughly equal to the weight of the entire population of Spain and the United Kingdom. The figure is estimated to rise to 60 tons per minute by 2050 if today’s plastic use and lack of adequate waste management continues.
The plastic creates big problems for wildlife and for humans. Birds, turtles and other ocean creatures become ensnared in carrier bags, stuck in abandoned fishing gear and die with their bellies full of plastics. The plastic enters the food chain and the food we eat, and has been found in pretty much all species of fish examined, along with mussels and snow crabs. This is probably just the beginning. The plastic problem is enormous.
We know our oceans and coastlines are choking on plastic. We’ve all seen plastic bottles, food wrappers and plastic bags polluting beaches, and been horrified by the stories of marine creatures like seabirds and whales starving when their stomachs become packed full of plastic.
Scientists have shown that up to 12 million tonnes of plastic is entering our oceans every year – that’s a rubbish truck full every minute. Single-use plastic packaging for food and drink is a particularly common part of the problem.
But how does plastic actually get into our oceans?
While about a fifth of marine litter is made up of fishing gear and other materials lost at sea by accident, industrial losses, or illegal dumping, we know that roughly 80% of litter in the seas comes from land.
The sheer amount of plastic that has been generated in the past 60 years is mind boggling. New research shows that we’ve produced plastic as heavy as 1 billion elephants since the 1950s. Even more staggering is the amount that has rapidly become waste. Just 9% of this plastic has been recycled. That means the majority of plastic waste has simply been dumped in landfills or burned.
However, when plastic waste is collected and transported to landfill sites, it can be at risk of escaping into the environment. Even when it’s in landfills, plastic is at risk of blowing away and ending up in rivers or oceans.
Even more of a risk is plastic litter. That’s plastic that either that isn’t collected where good waste managements systems are lacking, or plastic that is simply dropped or left behind on streets or in the environment. These plastic items can be carried by wind and rain into our drainage networks or rivers that then flow into the sea. Major rivers around the world carry an estimated 1.15-2.41 million tons of plastic into the sea every year – that’s up to 100,000 rubbish trucks.
Holidaymakers visiting beaches and leaving behind their bottles, food packaging and cigarette butts on the sand directly contribute to plastic getting into the ocean. Ironically, the tourism industry that has enabled more people to visit beautiful beaches is suffering as the growing problem of plastic pollution is turning visitors off destinations where the problem is most visible.
Horrified by microbeads
Many people were horrified to discover that tiny pieces of plastic known as microbeads have been added to all sorts of personal care and cosmetic products that are washed directly down the drain – from face scrubs to shower gels to toothpaste. As many of these microbeads are too small to be filtered out by wastewater plants, these plastic pieces are remaining in water that may end up flowing into the ocean.
That public outrage at these microbeads polluting our oceans combined with concerted campaigning has led to governments across the world banning products from containing microbeads, including the UK, US and Canada.
But plastic in cotton buds, facewipes or sanitary products that are flushed down the loo, and even plastic fibres in clothing that shed in the washing machines still pose a risk for plastic entering the ocean.
Finally, lax standards in industrial processes are responsible for some plastic getting into the environment, either when products containing plastic aren’t disposed of properly, or escaping during the production and or transporting of products. For example, thousands of the tiny plastic pellets used to make plastic products, known as nurdles or mermaid’s tears, are washed up on UK shorelines every year, polluting nearly three quarters of UK beaches at a count in February this year.
Once plastic is in our oceans, it flows on ocean currents all across the world – so even uninhabited islands in the Pacific and the Arctic are becoming dumping grounds for plastic.
Even if you live hundreds of miles from the coast, the plastic you throw away could make its way into the sea. Once in the ocean, plastic decomposes very slowly, breaking down in to tiny pieces known as micro plastics that can be incredibly damaging to sea life. 80% of plastic in our oceans is from land sources – but what does that really mean? Where is it coming from?
There are three main ways the plastic we use every day ends up in the oceans.
- Throwing plastic in the bin when it could be recycled
Plastic you put in the bin ends up in landfill. When rubbish is being transported to landfill, plastic is often blown away because it’s so lightweight. From there, it can eventually clutter around drains and enter rivers and the sea this way.
Litter dropped on the street doesn’t stay there. Rainwater and wind carries plastic waste into streams and rivers, and through drains. Drains lead to the ocean!
Careless and improper waste disposal is also a big contributor – illegal dumping of waste adds greatly to the plastic surge in our seas.
- Products that go down the drain
Many of the products we use daily are flushed down toilets, including wet wipes, cotton buds and sanitary products. Microfibres are even released into waterways when we wash our clothes in the washing machine. They are too small to be filtered out by waste water plants and end up being consumed by small marine species, eventually even ending up in our food chain.
A positive move in recent months was a ban on microbeads in rinse-off cosmetic and cleaning products introduced by the UK Government, so that these small plastic beads will no longer get washed down the sink and out into our oceans, but there are many more items that can also contribute to the problem.
THE BOTTOM LINE
How does plastic get into the ocean? The bottom line is us. Whether we mean to litter or not, there’s always a chance the plastic we throw away could make it into the sea, and from there who knows?
Chapter 6 next time: What happens to the plastic we do recycle?