Over 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans every single year.
By 2050, it is estimated that the plastic in the oceans will weigh more than the fish.
Over 200 animal species are known to have eaten plastic, mistaking it for food.
Plastic pollution in our oceans is a growing problem, but how does plastic get there in the first place? How can the bottle cap from your juice drink affect a baby albatross in the South Pacific? And what impact does it have once it’s there?
From shop to stream
If a plastic bottle (for example) is not put in a recycling or waste bin, it can easily be blown into a water source. If you think about how many bottles you see in canals, streams and rivers, you can see how common this problem is.
The more lightweight something is, the more easily it can be carried to water by the wind. Plastic bags are especially vulnerable to this.
Once the bottle is in a stream, it will make its way into a river, which eventually leads to the ocean.
What happens to plastic in the ocean?
Thanks to the makeup of ocean currents, bottles and any other bits of plastic will be pulled into a vortex, which ends up trapping the floating debris into a big pile. This is called a plastic gyre, and there are currently five around the world, including the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’.
Plastic was made to be durable and resilient. Because of this, it does not biodegrade. It does, however, photodegrade, which means that instead of being broken down gradually by bacteria, it is broken down by the UV rays of the sun.
In the process of photodegrading, that plastic bottle we talked about earlier will continuously break down into smaller and smaller pieces forever. This releases any harmful toxins present in the plastic into the ocean, making it less pure and clean every day.
What about marine life?
Those small plastic pieces can have disastrous effects on animals. We’ve all seen photos of birds, turtles and other species tangled up in plastic six-pack rings. This can happen as a result of ocean gyres. If birds land on them, they can get caught up in the debris, and struggle to free themselves.
Ocean plastics also get mistaken for food. The bright colours and shiny finish makes them look appealing to all kinds of marine life. Eating plastic will make these animals feel artificially full, meaning they won’t think they need to eat anything else. This starts a fatal process: a mother albatross has nothing but plastic to feed her chick, and this can cause them both to starve to death.
No matter how small the animal is that eats the plastic in the first place, chances are that will affect us. Humans around the world eat a variety of seafood; given how many species have been found with plastic items in their bellies, it’s alarming to think how much has probably been on our plates.
If used plastic gets sent to landfill, this can still have an effect on the oceans. Toxins from that plastic can end up seeping into the water cycle.
When it rains, that water flows through landfill sites and absorbs any water-soluble compounds that are in the plastic items, forming what is called ‘leachate’. This muddied up leachate mixture can bleed into the soil, and from there gradually find its way to streams.
How do we prevent this?
Recycling is a great way to reduce the volume of plastic going to the ocean. It is estimated that a rubbish-truck-load of plastic enters our oceans every minute, contributing to this enormous problem. If household plastics are recycled, they stay out of our streams, rivers and oceans.
An even better approach? Don’t use the plastic in the first place. Choose a stainless steel water bottle. Try a reusable bamboo fibre coffee cup. Buy paper cotton buds. There are many ways to reduce the amount of plastic you use, which is the best way you can protect our oceans.
Recycling your plastic can redirect it from the ocean. Not using it at all will guarantee this.