Marine Plastics

by The Ocean Portal Team; Reviewed by Dr. Jenna Jambeck, University of Georgia
Plastic bottles and other marine debris cover a rocky beach in Curacao.

A still from a video documenting a remote beach in Curaçao that's been blanketed in plastic garbage.

Credit: 

Cristina Castillo / Smithsonian Institution

Plastic surrounds us. It is not just the obvious places—like water bottles and straws. It is also used to build our cars and is found in our face washes and fabrics. With the invention of plastic in the early 20th century, we became a world that relished the privilege of cheap, easy-to-produce plastic pieces. Plastic has many benefits—it has allowed us to prevent heart attacks (stents that open up arteries are often made of plastic) and provide water to people in need. 

But it also has left a legacy of trash. 

Depending on the type of plastic and where it lands, items can take days to hundreds of years to break down into very small pieces, which likely never biodegrade. Because of these traits and our intensive use of it, plastic trash is now found in essentially every ecosystem on the planet—including throughout the ocean. Tiny pieces of plastic are also now found in the food we eat and beverages we drink. Plastic is, simply, unavoidable. There are ways we can change as a society, however—we can reduce our use of the substance (particularly in objects made to be used just once and then discarded) and help to ensure it doesn’t end up where it shouldn’t.

The video series "It's Okay To Be Smart" takes a look at the world of single-use plastic and its impact on the ocean. 

History

The Origin of Plastic

Photo of a mountain of billiard balls made from ivory.

The synthetic polymer celluloid was invented in 1907 to replace billiard balls, which were typically made of ivory. 

Credit: National Museum of American History, Estate of Catherine Walden Myer

The word “plastic” comes from the Greek “plassein,” which means to mold or shape. Plastic was developed mainly to do just that—take the shape of any object. 

The invention of plastic came about as the demand for ivory elephant tusks was rising and elephant populations were dramatically decreasing. Commonly used for billiard balls (as well as combs and other items), as the table sport became more popular, the use of ivory became prohibitively expensive. In 1863, a billiard company put an ad in the newspaper offering $10,000 to anyone who could come up with a replacement for ivory-made billiard balls. This gave John Wesley Hyatt the idea to create a synthetic polymer made of cotton and nitric acid, which he and his brother called celluloid. 

As it would turn out, celluloid was not very good for billiard balls, but it was good for molding into the different shapes, ranging from piano keys to film cannisters. When celluloid hit the market, it was advertised as an animal-friendly alternative to ivory and tortoise shells. The process of creating celluloid was dangerous, though, as it was highly flammable. 

Later, in 1907, Leo Baekeland was looking to create an alternative to shellac. A natural substance, shellac comes from the excretion of the lac beetle, and it takes a long time to produce. Baekeland wanted a material that was durable, heat-resistant, and a good insulator. He used phenol from coal tar in his creation, which he called Bakelite. In creating Bakelite, he produced the first fully-synthetic plastic, and came to be known as “The Father of the Plastics Industry.”

The invention of Bakelite paved the way for the development of newer plastics that are still manufactured today such as polystyrene, polyester, PVC, polythene and nylon. 
The production of plastics boomed during World War II. Plastic was a cheap alternative to a variety of other materials during a time of penny-pinching. Nylon was used for everything from parachutes and ropes, to body armor and helmet liners. Even after the war, people continued to use plastic because it was cheap, and production levels remained high as people found more uses for it. 

Types of Plastic

If you’ve ever looked on the bottom of a plastic bottle or container, you have probably seen a number surrounded by a triangle that looks like the recycling sign. You might just assume that because you see a recycling sign, the object is recyclable. This is not necessarily the case. 

The number you see is called the recycling code number, and it refers to the type of plastic that was used to make the object. Not all of the different types of plastics are recyclable everywhere, so you should check with your local recycling company to see which types of plastic you can recycle. 

Here are the seven plastics that have recycling code numbers:

  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE) - PET is from the polyester family. It is used to make water and soda bottles, microwavable meal trays, and clothing. It is the most widely-recycled plastic. 
  2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) - Polyethylene is a versatile polymer. High-Density Polyethylene is commonly used for grocery bags, garbage bags, shampoo bottles, and some bottles and caps. The hard versions are recyclable in most places, but bags often are not (though they can be reused and even recycled when returned to grocery stores). 
  3. Polyvinyl Chloride (V or Vinyl or PVC) - Polyvinyl Chloride is used for a variety of things, including raincoats, shower curtains, plumbing materials, garden hoses, and window frames. PVC from plumbing materials is not commonly recycled, but bottles and containers made of PVC can be made into drainage pipes and traffic cones. 
  4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) - Polyethylene is a versatile polymer. Low-Density Polyethylene is used for plastic wrap, bags, squeeze bottles, toys, and gas and water pipes. LDPE is not commonly recycled through home recycling programs, but LDPE plastic bags can be used more than once. 
  5. Polypropylene (PP) - Polypropylene is used for food and medicine containers, diapers, rope, and outdoor furniture. 
  6. Polystyrene (PS) - Solid polystyrene can be used for CD cases and cassettes, red cups, and other to-go items. Polystyrene is also used in a foam state, which we typically call Styrofoam. Egg cartons, packing materials, take-out containers and disposable plates are made out of foamed polystyrene. Recycling polystyrene is costly, and many U.S. cities have banned foamed polystyrene in favor of more recyclable materials. 
  7. Other (O) - The seventh category encompasses all other types of plastic and mixed polymers. This group includes polycarbonates, which are used for DVDs, eyeglasses, and “glass” panels of greenhouses; polylactic acid, which is used to make industrial compostable containers and cups; nylon, which is used for clothing, car tires components, and rope; and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), which is used for Legos. 

Microplastics


Tiny bits and pieces of plastic can be found throughout the ocean, like these collected from the open ocean by net.

Credit: 

Courtesy of Erik Zettler

Plastic waste that makes its way into the environment can break down due to the photodegradative effect, where UV light from the sun provides the energy for oxygen atoms to incorporate into the polymer of the plastic, and from wind and waves. The plastic then becomes brittle and breaks into smaller pieces. This process takes some time, but it can take even longer on the seafloor because of the lack of sunlight and oxygen, and cooler temperatures. When the plastic fragments over time, microplastics result. Microplastics make up as much as 85 percent of plastic pollution found on shorelines around the world. 

Animals often ingest the tiny pieces of plastic and it can build up in their stomachs. Tiny pieces of plastic have been detected in sea creatures that humans like to eat such as fish, shrimp, mussels, and oysters. (see Impacts section)

Additionally, some microplastics in the ocean are from microfibers. When we wash clothes in a washing machine, small fibers come off of the fabric (similar to lint in a dryer) and while some are captured by the wastewater treatment systems, some also wind up being released in freshwater systems and the ocean. One fleece jacket alone can produce up to 2 grams of microfibers, or the equivalent of 100,000 fibers, in one wash alone. Fibers like this can be released from clothes made with polyester, nylon, spandex and acrylic. The 2016 study also found that fleece jackets release seven times more fiber when in a top-loading washing machine. 

Another source of microplastic in the ocean is microbeads. These tiny plastic beads (often polyethylene) are added to many personal care products, such as cleansers and toothpaste. The beads act as an exfoliant in these products. When people wash off products with microbeads, however, they go down the drain, with some eventually reaching our waterways and the ocean, similar to microfibers. According to the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons in Britain, a single shower can send 100,000 particles of plastic to the ocean. Microplastics are also found in products that don’t get washed off immediately, such as glitter in nail polish.

Where does ocean plastic come from?

Land to Sea

Two overflowing trashcans

Much of the plastic in the ocean today comes directly from sources on land, like these overflowing trash cans. 

Credit: NOAA Marine Debris Program

Much of the plastic in the ocean today comes directly from sources on land, often reaching the ocean as runoff that moves improperly discarded trash from land to river and finally, the ocean. A 2015 study assessing plastic waste management, from 2010 data, found that there is on average 8 million metric tons of plastic that enters the ocean from land every year, but that the actual amount could vary between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons. This is enough plastic to fill every foot of coastline in the world with five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic, and this occurs every year. While this is the most comprehensive study of marine plastics to date, it still does not factor in plastic debris dumped by ships or swept out to sea during natural disasters, like a tsunami or hurricane, suggesting the total amount of plastic entering the ocean could be even greater.

Another group of scientists analyzed plastic debris information from around the world and found that over a quarter of the plastic waste that goes into the ocean every year likely comes from the runoff of just ten rivers. These ten rivers, eight of which are in Asia and two in Africa, are located adjacent to large cities where hundreds of millions of people live. Most of the global population lives near coastal areas, but even those who live far from the sea contribute to ocean pollution when their waste gets into rivers that dump into the ocean. 

Directly into the Sea

Marine debris collected in a harbor after Hurricane Katrina.

Natural disasters can quickly move plastics and other trash into the ocean. This marine debris was found in a Louisiana harbor after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in 2005. 

Credit: NOAA Marine Debris Program

Marine waste can go directly into the ocean as well. For decades countries intentionally dumped waste directly into the ocean, ranging from sewage and radioactive waste to plastics and other petroleum products. In 1972 the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, known as the London Convention or MARPOL, was ratified. Further regulations are a part of the London Protocol, an update to the convention that began in 2006. Certain ocean dumping is still allowed under these international treaties, such as large inert structures and dredged material, but as described in MARPOL Annex V, plastic is not allowed to be discharged to the sea.  

Mistakes do happen, however, and natural disasters can quickly move plastics and other trash into the ocean. Cargo ships can lose shipping containers due to human error, high winds, or storms at sea. It is estimated that over 10,000 containers are lost every year, which equates to about one every hour. 

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, five million tons of debris was moved and much of this found its way to the ocean. A lot of the debris sank, but it is estimated that 1 million tons floated and portions drifted all the way across the ocean to be found along the west coast of the United States. Other natural disasters, such as hurricanes and floods, also contribute to plastic debris in the ocean.

Ocean plastic, and marine debris generally, comes from a variety of sources--both direct and indirect. 

Impacts

How Much?

Plastic pollutions infographic

An estimated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced worldwide, but what exactly does 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic look like? 

Credit: Janet A Beckley, University of Georgia

Since the widespread production of plastic following World War II, an estimated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced worldwide. As of 2016, we produce about 335 million metric tons every year (PDF), roughly half of which is single-use plastics like water bottles and straws that are discarded immediately after use. It’s estimated that 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been used and discarded as waste. Only about nine percent of plastic produced is recycled on average globally. The 2017 study in Science Advances that estimated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced notes that recycling only delays the final disposal of an item, but does not avoid it. Twelve percent of the plastic produced has been incinerated at disposal, which leaves close to 80 percent being sent to a landfill or into the environment. But as images from around the world document, oftentimes, plastic fails to move through a solid waste collection system, is improperly disposed of or simply littered, and we are now witnessing a massive accumulation of unwanted plastic in even the most remote corners of the globe. 

The far reaching, visible presence of plastic in the ocean is undeniable, but exactly how much plastic is in the ocean? Scientists are currently trying to tackle this question, but the sheer size of the ocean makes it tough to get an exact answer. Most of the studies looking to answer this question focus on floating plastic, a portion of the problem that is easier to see. Floating plastic is easier to spot and collect using nets and amounts are still debated. A 2014 study estimates that there are 5.25 trillion particles (or 244,000 metric tons) of plastic floating in the ocean. A 2017 study found that 79,000 metric tons of plastic are floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And the European Space Agency plans to use new technology to measure the amount of floating ocean plastic that exists from space. Another 2017 study explored how much plastic falls to the ocean floor and estimates that 8.5 million metric tons settle on the ocean bottom per year. 

Where Does It Go?

Piles of marine debris collected on Midway Atoll

Piles of marine debris are continually collected by the researchers and workers who live on Midway Atoll, a remote island in the Pacific Ocean that is roughly half way between Asia and North America. 

Credit: USFWS - Pacific Region

From the equator to the poles, the highly populated to the remote, and from beaches to the deepest trenches at the bottom of the sea, plastic waste is found all over the globe. Not only is plastic durable, it is also usually light—perfect for getting caught in the wind or swept along with an ocean current and traveling long distances. Some plastics have been recorded traveling thousands of miles from their source. In a 1992 accident-turned-science experiment, a shipping container of 28,000 plastic toy ducks fell overboard in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Over the next 20 years the ducks began washing ashore in Hawaii, Australia, Scotland, Newfoundland, Maine, Washington state, Chile, and even in the Arctic, allowing scientists to document the extent to which plastic could travel. Now, some of the most remote islands have the highest densities of plastic along their shores. Despite being located in the center of the open ocean and far from dense human populations, they are deposition sites for floating plastic based upon their location in the ocean currents.

The Five Gyres

While plastic litter that washes ashore is an easy visual indicator of accumulation in the ocean, oftentimes plastic gets stuck out at sea. Floating on the ocean surface, the plastic litter may get caught in one of the many wind driven ocean currents and then make its way to the center of an ocean gyre—a massive circling ocean current.  

The currents of the North Pacific gyre collect trash—mostly bits of microscopic plastic—into what are known as "garbage patches."

The currents of the North Pacific gyre collect trash—mostly bits of microscopic plastic—into what are known as "garbage patches."

Credit: 

NOAA Marine Debris Program

Around the globe there are five major rotating gyres where plastic litter tends to accumulate—the North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Ocean gyres. Persistent, global winds tug at the surface ocean water, causing it to move and create a point where the water is higher. Additionally, the spinning of the Earth deflects the moving water in what is called the Coriolis effect, causing the moving water to deflect to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere. The combined wind and Coriolis forces create these gyres, or massive rotating currents, that span the entire ocean basin. Northern hemisphere gyres spin clockwise and southern hemisphere gyres spin counter-clockwise. All five gyres lend themselves to areas of plastic accumulation, and other locations where ocean currents meet one another can also accumulate plastic.

In the Northern Pacific Ocean, four ocean currents merge to form the circling North Pacific gyre which spans the western US to Japan, and Hawaii to California. This enormous rotating vortex has collected floating plastic and microplastics from across the Pacific, with much of the debris trapped in the calm center of the rotating area. There are two major areas where the plastic concentrates—an eastern plastic cluster often referred to as the "eastern Pacific garbage patch," also known as the North Pacific Subtropical High, and a western cluster referred to as the “western Pacific garbage patch” (or the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”).  The name is a bit misleading—there is no island or blanket of trash that can be seen via satellite or aerial photographs. Most of the floating trash is tiny, many of the pieces so small as to be invisible to the human eye. Scientists compare this area to more of a garbage soup since the build-up of tiny plastic pieces often extends several meters below the ocean surface. A study in 2018 estimates the amount of plastic in the North Pacific gyre is four to 16 times more than previously thought and consists largely (46%) of lost fishing gear. 

The gyre accumulation of plastic was largely unnoticed until the early 1990s, when Captain Charles Moore, head of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, sailed through a rarely traveled area between Hawaii and mainland U.S. Over the course of a week, despite being hundreds of miles from land, Moore watched a continuous stream of plastic trash float by. Although fishermen and sailors have noted the debris in this area for years, it was Captain Moore who brought the location and problem further into the public sphere.

To the Ends of the Earth

Marine Debris in Marianas Trench

A piece of marine debris, in the form of a Spam container, found on the deep-sea floor of the Marianas Trench. 

Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas, Leg 1

Not even the remote poles are immune to the plastic trash buildup. Aided by large ocean currents, masses of microplastics are catching a ride from the densely populated North Atlantic up to the Arctic. The ocean is constantly moving through a network of large ocean currents. Driven by salinity and temperature, this thermohaline circulation moves massive quantities of ocean water from one end of the globe to the other. In the process, plants, animals, and now plastic can get caught up in the current and transported from one ocean basin to another. It was once believed that the Southern Ocean would be isolated from human plastic debris owing to the massive circumpolar current that sweeps around the Antarctic continent, but recent studies show that not only are microplastics present in the water, they are also finding their way into the Antarctic food web when animals accidentally eat them.

Even some of the deepest areas of the ocean are littered with plastic. Although some plastic floats, other polymers are denser than seawater (e.g., PET) and will sink. In addition, over time algae, barnacles, worms, bacteria, and other organisms colonize the surface of floating plastic in a process called biofouling. Weighed down by the marine organisms, the plastic can become heavy enough to sink. Plastics are also embedded into fecal pellets after they are consumed by an animal and then transported to the bottom of the ocean as the pellets sinks. Owing to its densely populated coasts and isolation from the open ocean, the Mediterranean seafloor has the most litter, with up to eight items of plastic per square meter. Ocean trenches are also notable areas of plastic accumulation. A 2017 study found that between 50 to 100 percent of animals at the deepest places in the ocean, like Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, had plastic in their stomachs. Among the discovered plastics were synthetic fibers like Rayon that are commonly used in clothing.

Animals & Ecosystems

Plastic as Food


Midway Atoll, where these photos were taken, is more than 2,000 miles from the nearest land.

Credit: 

Chris Jordan

In the 1960s a worrying trend became apparent. Seabirds across the globe were dying from bits of plastic clogging up their digestive system. Not only can the animals die from blockage of their stomach or intestines, sharp plastic shards can also pierce intestinal lining, and they can starve due to feeling falsely full from a stomach full of plastic. Soon similar reports extended to whales, dolphins, and manatees found with plastic in their stomachs. Today, plastic has been found in animals ranging from whales, fish, sea turtles, tiny crustaceans, birds, and even shellfish, for a total of about 700 species (subscription required). The extent to which an animal eats plastic depends upon how they consume their food. Foraging birds will often mistake plastic as potential food items, and filter feeding animals like baleen whales or mussels unintentionally sift out plastic along with plankton. More than half the world’s sea turtles have ingested some amount of plastic, they eat small pieces of plastic, but often they can mistake a drifting plastic grocery bag for a floating jellyfish, which many turtles love to eat. For a leatherback sea turtle that consumes close to 75 percent of their body weight in gelatinous jellyfish per day, making the distinction is a challenge. 

Not only does ingesting plastic cause severe physical harm to an animal, it can lead to poisoning as harmful chemicals leach out from the plastic. Flame retardants, antimicrobial agents, and antioxidants (used as a preservative) are common additives to plastics that are known to cause harm to animal health, specifically in relation to hormone production. A study on oysters that monitored the effects of microplastic consumption on reproduction found oysters that consumed plastic had lower sperm count, fewer eggs, and decreased offspring health. Scientists found high levels of phthalates, a common chemical found in plastics, in the muscles of birds in the Aleutian Islands off of Alaska. Plastics are also excellent absorbers and can accumulate harmful chemicals like DDT that linger in the environment for decades. One study found that concentrations of a toxic, banned chemical called polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs, once used in coolant fluid) was 106 times greater in bits of plastic than in the surrounding water.

A white fleck of plastic is engulfed by a coral polyp.

A white fleck of plastic is engulfed by a coral polyp.

Credit: Alex Seymour, Duke University

Mounting evidence now shows that some animals find plastic (or the organisms growing on it) to taste or smell appealing. Birds rely on odors produced by phytoplankton to help them determine where to search for food, and when plankton and bacteria grow on the surface of plastic their presence can trick birds into eating the plastic. Anchovies, too, will start to swarm as though food is nearby in the presence of biofouled plastic odors. Corals will even consume bits of plastic. In one study, corals would mostly spit the plastic back out, but in a few cases it became stuck in the coral polyp. Color and appearance of the plastic can also impact whether an animal will find it appealing. Fish prefer cylindrical plastic pieces that are either blue or yellow, suggesting that they are confusing the plastic for potential prey.

While some animals directly eat plastic, for others it comes hidden in their meal. Many animals higher up in the food chain, like tuna and sea lions, consume fish that have plastic within their digestive tract. The plastic, unable to be digested, is then transferred from one predator to the next and can travel up to the top of the food web. In 2017 a large sperm whale was found beached with 64 pounds of trash in its digestive track. This concept means that humans, too, consume plastic from the fish they eat. Preliminary data from one study found that on average an oyster or clam, both popular shellfish at restaurants, will contain about eight pieces of microplastic. Although a few preliminary studies have attempted to determine how much plastic the average person will consume in a lifetime, the jury is still out on a scientifically sound estimate. As the pervasiveness of plastic in seafood becomes more apparent, worries about human health impacts of plastic consumption is increasing.

Entanglement & Disease

A team works to disentangle a right whale.

A team works to disentangle a right whale from fishing gear. 

Credit: 

Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit #15488

The other startlingly visible plastic problem is animal entanglement. Plastic fishing nets lost at sea are notorious for ensnaring and killing unsuspecting animals, especially whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, birds, and sea turtles. Fishing gear, once built with biodegradable wood and ropes, is now predominantly made of synthetic plastics. Gear often gets lost at sea and will continue to trap and kill animals whether they were the intended target for the gear or not, a phenomenon called “ghost fishing.” Over 200 marine species have been reported to be impacted by entanglement, and for the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale, deaths from entanglement could cause the species to go extinct. 

Even if entanglement does not drown an animal, it can also cause an assortment of other issues, including open wounds and infection, inhibited ability to find food, and inability to escape from predators. If an animal gets caught when young, the plastic can cut into the animal’s body as it grows. The exposed cuts can allow infection to spread and often lead to the animal’s death. Even corals are more susceptible to disease when entangled in plastic debris, either because of infection or being smothered. One study found that 89 percent of reefs containing plastic showed signs of disease while only 4 percent of plastic-free reefs were diseased.

Plastic Rafts

When pieces of plastic drift halfway across the globe, the plants, animals, and bacteria that begin to grow on the surface hitch a ride as well. These plastic “rafts” transport their stowaways to foreign environments where they can wreak havoc in the new environment as invasive species or vectors of disease. Over 1,200 marine species, ranging from algae to fish, are known to grow on marine debris, leading to concern about the potential for future species invasions. Ships have proven to be effective invasive species transporters when they harbor larvae in their ballast water and then expel them into foreign oceans when the ship hull is drained. Now, plastics may be acting as a similar vessel of exotic species. 

After the 2011 tsunami that prompted the Fukushima Daiichi power plant meltdown in Japan, debris swept out to sea by the tsunami began to appear on the western coast of the United States. Scientists discovered over 280 Japanese species on the floating debris including kelp, sea stars, mussels, oysters, sea slugs, barnacles, other tiny crustaceans, and even two species of fish.

Not only does plastic debris aid global migrations, it will also aid the expansion of species indigenous habitats as climate change alters regional environments. Rather than rely on their own limited methods of locomotion species may instead use plastic to help them drift up and down coastlines as they warm. 

After the Japanese tsunami in 2011 over 280 Japanese species floated to the West Coast of the United States on marine debris. 

Solutions & Successes

The issue of ocean plastics and debris is far-reaching, but there are solutions. Changes can be made by governments, corporations and individuals to reduce the negative impacts of plastic on our health, and the health of the planet.

Reduce


A plastic bag floats at sea.

Credit: 

© Gavin Parsons / www.gavinparsons.co.uk / Marine Photobank

The most obvious solution to the plastic problem is to reduce the amount of plastic that is produced. But this is easier said than done, as it is such a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. Because of this, reducing our use of plastic is being tackled by individuals, manufacturers making changes to their products, and government legislation. Many items, such as plastic grocery bags, straws, and food packaging serve a useful purpose, and to reduce our use of such items requires an alternative solution and changing our habits. 

Changing a habit is hard. There is an entire self-help industry around helping people do just that. You would think it wouldn’t be that hard to get people to remember a reusable bag when shopping, but financial incentives can help, as taxes on single-use plastic bags around the world have proven. A charge of just 15 cents on plastic bags implemented in Ireland in 2002 reduced plastic bag use by 90 percent. And outright bans continue to be successful around the world. 

It is estimated that half a billion straws are used every day in the United States, which is why it’s no surprise that they are often found littering beaches and in the stomachs of marine animals. But organizations and individuals, including some tenacious teens, are leading a growing campaign to reduce use of plastic straws, or ban them all together except when absolutely necessary (for example, some people are unable to feed themselves otherwise). 

Stopping plastic use at the source is another way to reduce its presence in everyday items. A ban on the use of microbeads in cosmetic products and items, like toothpaste, went into effect in the United Kingdom in early 2018. A similar ban was signed into law in the United States in 2015, however neither ban covers all products that use the tiny 5mm or smaller pieces of plastic, only those that consumers “rinse-off.” Scotland plans to ban the sale and manufacturing of plastic cotton swabs. In the United Kingdom plastic bag bans seem to be working. A 2018 study used 25 years of trawl data and found that the number of plastic bags found on the sea floor has dropped since 2010. There is still work to be done, as fishing nets and other plastic debris numbers have increased. 

Companies are coming up with alternatives to plastic for some common items— truly biodegradable materials that can be composted at home are under development. Some companies are even setting their sights on a future where people eat their cutlery and food packaging once they are finished using it. Saltwater Brewery made edible six-pack rings out of barley to help protect marine life from getting caught in the well-known plastic version if it is littered. One company hopes to stop the tiny microfibers that wash off our clothes from making their way to the ocean with the help of a strong and washable mesh bag.

Remove

A beach clean-up in Malaysia brings young people together to care for their coastline.

A beach clean-up in Malaysia brings young people together to care for their coastline.

Credit: 

Liew Shan Sern/Marine Photobank

With so much plastic already in the ocean, and more entering every day, it is clear that we are going to have to get better at removing it.

Baltimore employs two googly-eyed machines that collect trash directly from the Maryland harbor—called “Mr. Trash Wheel” and “Professor Trash Wheel.” Over one million tons of trash have been removed in three years by the former, before it can reach the open ocean. A similar concept is being tested in Australian marinas. One entrepreneur, Boyan Slat, is attempting to tackle the trash in the North Pacific Gyre specifically. His company, The Ocean Cleanup, plans to use open-ocean booms to gather plastic on the surface of the water and then put the collected trash into ships for proper disposal. It’s an ambitious idea that has received a lot of press and financial support, but some are skeptical due to the possibility of interacting with marine life while at sea, and the energy involved in the process, which some say would be better spent “upstream”—stopping plastic from entering the system in the first place. 

Countless hours of human labor help to remove trash directly from coastlines around the world. Lawyer and activist, Afroz Shah, leads the largest beach cleanup in the world on a beach in Mumbai, India. The Ocean Conservancy has led the International Coastal Cleanup, bringing together thousands of volunteers for over 30 years to cleanup marine debris from beaches, directly from the ocean on boats, and even underwater via Scuba. And what if everyone took just two minutes to clean up trash from a beach? Even insects are getting into the game.

Afroz Shah spoke at the 2017 Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, DC about the largest beach cleanup in the world that he led on the beaches of Mumbai, India. 

Crowd sourcing and citizen science can help us to get a better idea of how much plastic is on land, in the ocean and what and where exactly it is. Phone apps like Litterati, which turns recording and picking up pieces of trash into a game, and the citizen science program and app Marine Debris Tracker allows for everyone to play a part in collecting data and keeping plastic out of our ocean. This information can help make conservation programs more effective.

Reuse & Recycle

Sunglasses from Norton Point.

Sunglasses company Norton Point made a pair of sunglasses out of recycled ocean plastic.

Credit: Courtesy of Norton Point

Once plastic has made its way into the world, there are ways that individuals and governments can ensure it doesn’t get into the environment. The terms “reuse” and “recycle” are often used interchangeably, but they describe different paths. Reusing an item means to use it again in its original form, while recycling is the process of taking an item and breaking it down to be built up again in a new shape. 

Many companies have started to make use of either recycled plastic or, specifically, plastic waste collected from the ocean to produce “new” products. Unifi, a manufacturer that spins plastic into yarn, has been making graduation gowns out of recycled plastic that over 2.2 million students have worn. Another company, Bionic Yarn, makes similar synthetic thread from bottles that have collected on coastlines. Adidas has upcycled ocean plastic to create a running shoe, and the Toronto condo complex CityPlace installed carpets made from discarded fishing nets in its hallways. Cleaning product company Method made a soap bottle out of recycled plastic. Clothing company G-Star RAW created a clothing line called RAW for the Oceans, which features clothes made partially from ocean plastic (using Bionic Yarn). One company is even experimenting with making traditionally clay bricks for building homes out of recycled plastic products, melted down with a solar oven. 

In Haiti, a company is trying to increase recycling rates by paying people directly for depositing plastic for recycling. Launched in one of the world’s poorest countries, the “Plastic Bank” incentivizes local residents to pick up plastic trash, often from beaches where it washes ashore from afar, and allows them to get cash or goods in return for the plastic deposit. Similar enterprises are starting up around the world to make picking up trash worth the hard labor involved. Sustainable skateboard company Bureo has launched a skateboard made from recycled fishing nets and a group called Net-works collects fishing nets and turns them into carpet tiles. Both of these enterprises pay people for collecting plastic fishing nets in the local communities where they work.  

The list keeps growing with creative ways you can reuse and recycle plastic waste.

Future Research

With so much research and innovation surrounding the reduction of single-use plastic products, and recycling our used plastic for further use, there is much hope for a future with less plastic waste in our oceans. The reduction will likely be caused by a mixture of solutions, all working together, as there is no silver bullet that can fix our global trash problem. 

People from around the world recently met about the topic at the Sixth International Marine Debris Conference, and the United Nations Environment Programme leads a Global Partnership on Marine Litter which released a global resolution to reduce marine microplastics and litter in 2017. Scientists have even created an enzyme that can break down PET (polyethylene terephthalate, the plastic found in water and soda bottles).  

We don’t have all the answers, but solutions are on the horizon. 

Additional Resources

NOAA Marine Debris Program
Marine Pollution Facts & Figures from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization 
Recycling Perceptions Report from Pew Research Center
Microbeads & Microplastics from NOAA Office of Response and Restoration

Scientific Reports:
Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Science - Jenna R. Jambeck, Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, et al.
Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made, Science Advances - Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law 

Classroom Activities: 
Ocean Portal: Teaching Your Students About Marine Debris
NOAA Marine Debris Program Activities and Curricula
Oregon Sea Grant Curriculum
California Current Ecosystem Lesson Plans (scroll down to “The Central North Pacific Gyre and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch” section)