How big is the problem of plastics in the ocean and what are we doing to solve it?

One of the biggest environmental threats facing the ocean is plastic waste. More than 80% of waste that ends up in the ocean is generated on land, and one of the major contributors to this mess is plastic. According to a recent report by World Economic Forum the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050 if we continue at the same pace. How severe is the issue, and what are we currently doing to solve it?

The problem with plastic waste in the oceans is for many best known through the great pacific garbage patch, a floating island of plastic waste created currents grouping trash together in one area was what initially sparked my concern when it was first discovered. It has even been reported a second garbage patch circulating in the southern hemisphere covering an area about a million square miles in size, bigger than the state of Texas, containing over a million tons of plastic. An expedition to the area in 2011 picked up little trace of the patch, which means it’s a new phenomenon, formed in the past few years.

While these patches are the most visible symptoms of plastic pollution in the ocean,  plastic debris has been found in all major oceans, with an estimated 4 to 12 million tons of plastic waste generated on land entering the marine environment yearly. New data also suggests contamination in rivers and streams, as well as on land, is increasingly common, with most of the pollution in the form of microscopic pieces of synthetic fiberslargely from clothing.

This nature of plastic pollution is what makes the problem even more cumbersome. Only 15 percent of the ocean plastic is visible on the surface, whereas another 15 percent is washed ashore and as much as 70 percent of all plastic waste end up under the surface. Either drifting along the ocean currents or sinking to the sea floor.

Most of the plastic in the ocean ends up as microplastics, small fragments of plastic that enter the marine ecosystem in various ways.  Microplastics are particles less than five millimeters in size that deteriorate from larger plastic pieces that have entered the oceans, as synthetic materials like plastic degrade by breaking up into smaller pieces rather than decompose as organic materials. As an example, the estimated time for an ordinary plastic bottle to decompose is 450 years.

In addition to broken down particles of plastic, the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products are greatly contributing to contaminating the ocean. A study completed in 2015 from Environmental Science & Technology alarmingly found that 8 trillion microbeads were entering aquatic environments throughout the United States every day.

Another source of microplastic is synthetic fabrics. The Norwegian Environment Agency found that emission of microplastic in wastewater from washing synthetic clothing is an order of magnitude higher than that from the personal care products and cosmetics, where experiments show that more than 1,900 microplastic fibers are released from a single synthetic garment in just one wash by a laundry machine.

The result is estimated that in 2014 there was an accumulated number of microplastic particles somewhere between 15 to 51 trillion particles, weighing between 93 and 236 thousand tons. The amount of plastic contaminating the oceans show no signs of slowing down, as our demand for plastic products is increasing at a steady and accelerating pace.

The growth of plastics production in the past 65 years has substantially outpaced any other manufactured material, and it is estimated that by 2050 the plastics industry will consume 20% of total oil production and 15% of the annual carbon budget globally. A recent report has estimated that we have made 8,3 billion tons of plastic since 1950 with a CAGR of 8% and accelerating growth due to the rocketing rise in plastic packaging, which accounted for about 42 percent of nonfiber plastic production in 2015. Of all plastic produced 30 percent is still in use, while 70 percent of that plastic has been turned into waste. Of those 70 percent, only 9 percent has been recycled.

If we continue this path, the rising amount of plastic pollution in the oceans may have unprecedented consequences. It is already a well-known fact that marine life is threatened by plastic pollution, either by getting trapped and entangled in discarded plastic packaging or by eating the plastic. So far, 136 species of marine animals have been found entangled in debris. Reports have shown that the chemicals present in plastics may harm the reproductive capabilities of certain sea creatures. As plastic cannot be digested, it sits in the stomach without being able to go anywhere. Eventually, the digestive tract becomes blocked, which has caused the deaths of countless seabirds, turtles, and ocean mammals.

More than a quarter of all fish now contain plastic, according to a recent study which analyzed the guts of fish sold at markets in Indonesia and California. It has also been proven that that zooplankton (microscopic organisms that act as food for small predators like krill, shrimp, and small fish) is eating microplastic. The danger is that toxins from these microplastics moves up the food value chain. As the ocean is an important source of food for humans, the effect on plastic entering the food value chain is yet to be accounted for. The UN has issued a warning, stating that “The presence of microplastic in foodstuffs could potentially increase direct exposure of plastic-associated chemicals to humans and may present an attributable risk to human health.” .

Some scientists claim that the damage is irreparable, as cleaning up the mess may cause more harm than good.  leaning up micro-plastics could also inadvertently sweep up plankton, which provides the basis for the marine food chain and half of the photosynthesis on Earth. According to NOAA, cleaning up less than one percent of the North Pacific would take 68 ships working 10 hours a day for a year.

While there is some skepticism regarding the realism in cleaning up this mess, there are several initiatives attempting to rid the ocean of plastic waste ranging from volunteer organization like Nordic Ocean Watch as well as corporate efforts like Norwegian classified-ads company launched a campaign earlier this year, offering a cash reward to anyone cleaning up plastic from the Norwegian coastline. The most famous initiative is The Ocean Cleanup project, which has set out on a mission to remove 70,000 metric tons of plastic from the oceans within 10 years by utilizing a massive barrier that collects plastic garbage. Norwegian billionaire Kjell Inge Røkke is donating parts of his fortune to build the research vessel, REV. The vessel will be operated and managed by WWF and in addition to doing research it will remove up to 5 ton s of plastic from the ocean daily.

However, to solve this issue, the problem need to be addressed at the source. Several countries are joining forces in order to issue a ban on the use of microbeads in cosmetics, and the EU is through the mermaids project investigating different technologies to capture microplastic fibers from synthetic fabrics. World Economic Forum is suggesting in a report on the future of plastics three distinct strategies to reduce plastic waste.

  1. Improve the way we design, recycle and re-use plastics. About 30% of the plastic we create is destined for landfills or the ocean
  2. For at least 20% of plastic waste, re-use is an economically attractive option
  3. For the remaining 50% of plastic, we need to make recycling pay.Improving packaging at the design stage would make recycling easier

According to a research paper on plastic pollution published this summer, as long as we lack a strategy for end-of life plastics we are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet. In the long run, the only viable solution is to drastically cut down on plastic pollution. That means cleaning up the mess we have already made, coutneract the out of sight, out of mind mentality when it comes to marine pollution, as well as slowing down our overall plastic production by increasing the recycling rate and decreasing our demand for disposable plastic.

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