Our species has now made enough plastic to cover our entire world in a giant plastic bag – not only once – but twice.
Of this truly massive mass of material – only a tiny fraction of this plastic is still useful, despite being made of a material that lasts thousands of years. Whilst some is still in use – 6% has been recycled (once at least before being re-dumped), 8% has been burnt, and over 55% of the all plastic was either never used or used only once and then discarded.
But where exactly does all discarded plastic end up?
Destined For the Deep: How Plastic Ends up in the ocean
Plastic if not recycled, burnt or buried (at still sometimes even then) ends up in the ocean.
Our oceans are the worlds sink – where all the wind, rain and worlds rivers transport plastic to eventually as most communities lack recycling to repurpose plastics back into useful parts and products.
In developing countries there is no/inadequate systems – but even countries with robust waste systems, vast amounts of plastic waste ends up in the ocean due to littering and improper disposal.
Plus fishing and marine plastic pollution is dumped often straight into the sea with no steps in-between and in a world of rising sea levels old buried land dumps are being eroded into the sea.
But why not recycle it? Truthfully most types of plastics are difficult and therefore expensive to recycle – even excluding the extra expense of cleaning and sorting. And new plastic is so cheap and easy to use we just don’t care enough to bother using old.
Add it all together and it means that recycling schemes exist nearly everywhere very little ends up being recycled.
The result is the significant majority of plastic that can be recycled (along with that which cant) ends up in the ocean or other natural environments, where they take centuries to break down.
Where does ocean plastic end up?
Once plastic enters the ocean, it does not biodegrade but instead breaks down into smaller, often invisible, pieces. This plastic pollution has a significant impact on the marine environment, and understanding where this plastic ends up and its effects on marine life is crucial.
The majority of plastic pollution in the ocean is found on the surface, where it is transported by ocean currents and wind.
These plastics can collect in ocean gyres, vast areas of rotating ocean currents, where they accumulate into so called “garbage patches.”
The largest and most well known of these patches is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between Hawaii and California, and is estimated to be 6 times the size of the UK! But its not a anomaly – patches of the ocean with concentrations of plastic can be found in smaller scales in every great ocean and smaller tidal gyres form in many of Cornwall’s bays.
How Plastic Harms the Ocean and Marine Life
In the ocean plastic patches and gyres act as a graveyard for marine life, entangled in lost fishing nets, ingesting hooks and sharp shards it, or die from suffocation after eating plastic.
All species are equally easily entangled in netting – drawing in by wildlife already killed and tangled as bait. Small animals with gills suffocate unable to swim and therefore unable to breathe with their gills, whilst larger surface breathing mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals starve unable to dive down to feed.
Animals in the sea – from small species like anchovies and sardines to larger carnivores such as dolphins, seals and sharks, also ingest plastic. Sea turtles, for instance, mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, a vital part of their diet. Even Coral – see our other post here – weirdly prefers to eat it to its food.
The ingested plastic then can block their digestive system and cause starvation, internal injuries, or allow bacteria in causing infections. In addition, plastic particles can break down into, or carry, harmful chemicals that can interfere with animal development, reproductive systems, and cause hormonal imbalances. The ingestion of plastic not only blocks their digestive tract but can also reduce the nutritional value of their diet, ultimately leading to slow starvation, reduced growth, and damage to their reproductive systems.
Revenge from the deep: How Ocean Plastic harms us on land
Ocean plastic though doesn’t always stay in the deep.
Birds are also susceptible to the effects of plastic pollution as they can mistakenly ingest plastic whilst trying to feed. These fragments can puncture their digestive systems, leading to death or severe injury.
Seabirds, such as puffins, seagulls and albatrosses, can mistake the plastic they find floating in the ocean as food or nesting material for their chicks, leading them to feed/expose the plastic to their young, causing suffocation, strangulation or starvation.
We humans aren’t safe either.
Microplastics ingested by marine life enter the food chain and eventually end up on those who eat seafoods plates. In one study 80% of people tested were found to have had microplastic that had been absorbed from their guts into their blood – whilst there is decades of research consensus that almost every single human alive has chemical pollution from broken down plastics inside them.
The impact of ingesting microplastics on our health is still controversial, but it is well known that the chemicals used to make them are harmful and toxic.
How We Can RECOVER PLASTIC FROM THE OCEAN
It is clear to most that we cannot continue to ignore the mounting evidence of the harm that plastic waste is causing to marine life, human health, and our planet as a whole.
We know enough that we know we need to act, and that action must include a robust and concerted effort to recover plastic waste from our oceans and recycle it to ensure it doesn’t re-enter the sea.
As individuals and communities, we all make a difference by reducing our own plastic consumption, but this is not enough and doesn’t solve the problem already in the sea and the plastic caused indirectly in providing seafood (fishing gear), transporting goods via sea (plastic paints and boat) and degrading plastic products.
We owe it to ourselves and future generations to take action now to protect it and through our suporting our efforts you allow us to recover the plastic waste that is choking our oceans, work collaboratively to find new ways to recycle it – all to create a healthier, more sustainable world.