Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

Written by: Dr.Petra PhD
Updated: Dec 22, 2022
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All pollution is bad for the ocean and all the creatures in it. However, there is one material that is highly potent to the ocean, and that is plastic. It has many immensely negative effects on the ocean’s wildlife. Thousands of marine animals die each year because of plastic debris. There are many ways that plastic can get to the ocean than you know. This has been an ongoing problem and still has not been stopped.

Plastic was founded in 1909 by Belgian-born chemist by the name of Leo Hendrik Baekleand.

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He described the material as “highly moldable, more durable than ceramics, lighter than metal, and made entirely in the lab, the new composite was also electrically nonconductive and heat-resistant” (Douchette). By the 1600s, plastic became a necessity for Americans and by the time 1979 came around, the production of the amount of plastic produced overtook that of steel. Today we find plastic in everyday life. For example, in our phones, clothes, airplanes, and hospitals, among other things. Plastic has a part to play in numerous products, quickly earning it the title “material of a thousand uses” (Douchette). The Environmental Protection Agency, also known as the EPA, reported that “Every bit of plastic ever made still exists,” and about 14 billion pounds of that plastic is dumped into our oceans yearly. This comes out to 1.5 million pounds an hour, and the U.S is responsible for a third of the world’s ocean pollution. Clearly, plastic can be a valuable material, but the fact that 10% of the 260 billion tons of plastic produced each year ends up in our ocean is absurd.

How does plastic debris enter our ocean? There are many different ways it can enter. For example, excess fishing gear, ships that sail the ocean, being swept in from the beach by waves, and blown from landfills. Three examples cause the most significant impact, the first one being the dumping of plastic from a ship. Before 1988 dumping from a ship was the easiest method to get rid of your plastic waste without anyone knowing. But by December 31, 1988, The Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act law went into effect. This Law made it illegal for any U.S vessel or land-based operation to dispose of plastics at sea. This helped the problem, but it was nearly impossible to monitor. It is still happening to this day. The fact that plastic is light in weight causes it to easily fly out of the trucks that are headed to landfill sites. On the way of transportation, the plastic blows out and lands either directly in our ocean or in the rivers that lead to the sea. There is a simple and obvious fix to this, put netting over the bed of the truck, so the plastic and other harmful debris can not elude the truck. The other way is through the fishing industry. Each year at least 64,000 tons of fishing gear found in the ocean is plastic. The majority of this number is fishing lines and long fishing nets. Not only does this affect us and our oceans, but it affects the fish as well. Algalita researchers reported that of the 672 fish that were caught, about 35% contained plastic, and most of the plastic found in the stomachs was fishing line.

This plastic pollution crisis directly impacts our sea and the wildlife that call the ocean their home. “Thousands of seabirds and sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals are killed each year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it” (Killduff). Nearly a thousand marine species are affected by plastic waste, including the soon-to-be endangered Hawaiian Monk seal and the Pacific loggerhead sea turtle. In most instances, sea turtles mistake large floating pieces of plastic for food, which causes choking, intestinal injury, death, and sometimes starvation because they think they are full of all the plastic. The fish are also drastically impacted by the ongoing pollution. Fish alone ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic each year. This causes intestinal injury to the fish, usually resulting in death. Not only does this impact the fish, but the whole upper food chain as well. This includes large marine mammals and humans who ingest seafood products. According to a recent study from UC Davis, “Roughly a quarter of the fish sampled from the fish markets in California and Indonesia contained human-made debris” (Kerlin), such as plastic. Indonesia is at a much higher risk for plastic ingestion than California. This is because of the few recycling centers, waste collections, and landfill centers they offer. Therefore, a majority of the plastic ends up in our oceans. Also, the study states that you have a much higher chance of consuming plastic if you eat the fish whole instead of filleted. This is a problem in many ways, and we need a solution.

The floating debris that turtles and other animals think is food has many more negative impacts. One of those negative impacts is that it works as a sponge and captures all the particles that pass by it instead of leaving them. A 2001 paper by Japanese researchers reported that “plastic debris can act like a sponge for toxic chemicals, soaking up a million-fold greater concentration of such deadly compounds as PCBs and DDEs, a breakdown product of the notorious insecticide DDT, than the surrounding seawater” (Hayden). These toxic chemicals are a million times greater in toxicity levels than normal seawater, and knowing the fact that thousands of organisms are carrying these toxins is sickening. PCBs, also known as polychlorinated biphenyls, are synthetic chemicals used as cooling fluids in electrical equipment and machinery because of their durability and resistance to fire. DDTs are defined as “dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane” and were developed as an insecticide in the 1940s. The products were used to combat insect-borne illnesses in World War II. After years of floating on the sea surface, the plastic starts to decay and break down into smaller pieces that eventually end up in the ocean’s current and affect filter-feeding animals such as jellyfish. Along with the animals ingesting the plastic, they are also taking in those toxins released.

It amazes me that 90% of seabirds eat plastic. According to Chris Wilcox, “Essentially, the number of species and number of individuals within species that you find plastic in is going up fairly rapidly by a couple of percents every year” (Parker). If that statistic stays consistent, given that factors could change, by the year 2050, every seabird will have ingested a piece of plastic. In the 1960s, plastic was found in the stomachs of only less than five percent of seabirds. In 20 years, by the time the 1980s hit, that number jumped up to a whopping 80%. Global plastic production is predicted to double every 11 years, so the loss of seabirds due to plastic consumption is inevitable unless we, of course, stop the production of plastic altogether or alter it, so the amount being made is much lower. This just shows how rapidly this crisis has taken over.

In 1950, the world had a population of 2.5 billion people, and that number produced 1.5 million tons of plastic. In 2016, the population had increased to 7 billion people, meaning that over 320 million tons of plastic were produced. By the year 2034, it is projected that the numbers outlined in 2016 will be doubled. These numbers will only keep going up each year until we do something about this ongoing crisis. Approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into the ocean daily. This results in about 5.25 trillion macro and microplastic pieces floating in our ocean currently. This means plastic currently makes up 60 to 90% of all marine debris.

Do you agree that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea? According to research, if we continue to dump plastic into the ocean at the same rate as we do now, measured by weight, there will indeed be more plastic than fish. However, how do you measure the plastic, and how do you count the population of fish? The report on how you measure plastic traces back to a study done by Jenna Jambeck of the University of Georgia. Her study “looks at estimates for total waste in all non-landlocked countries, and then estimates how much of that waste is likely to be plastic, how much of it is recycled, and so on” (Hornak). However, there are two limitations to her research. The first is that the study only examines San Francisco Bay, which cannot be relied upon to get accurate results due to the small body of water. Also, the volume of plastic can be much more abundant in certain ocean areas than in others. My other concern is if you really can get accurate information on the fish population. In a 2008 study led by Simon Jennings, his team used satellite imagery to measure the extent of phytoplankton in the ocean. Jennings and his team stated that “almost the entire marine food web is ultimately dependent on phytoplankton, this data can be used to create an estimate for the total tonnage of fish living in the ocean” (Honark). However, my problem with that is the fact that finding the difference between if they are fish or just other marine predators is nearly an impossible task by using satellite imagery.

Selling your business, setting up a research foundation, designing a double-hulled sailing research vessel, dedicating a fortune, and risking your life seems a bit extreme, in my opinion. But for a guy by the last name of Moore it was not. He was 48 years old and an avid surfer with little scientific training who wanted to make a difference. He claimed that every time he would look into the water, “there were shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see. Here I was in the middle of the ocean, and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic” (Haydena). The research vessel, commonly known as the Alguita, and the team went on many missions to figure out this dilemma. Their most famous and recent voyage was visiting the so-called “garbage patch.” This is the most significant accumulation of ocean plastic in the world, and it is located between Hawaii and California. The research team claims that what causes this is something called the Langmuir Cell, a wind-driven circulation pattern where two masses of water are pushed together. This forces some of the water to sink where they meet. Therefore, anything that has the ability to float stays on the surface. These convergences are usually hotspots for seabirds and other predators to feed. However, with plastic taking up most of the mass, there is not much for these animals to choose from anymore. When Moore’s research team was there, they did see some albatrosses and a few other seabirds. They reported that the birds were just flying and not going down to the patch because they knew there was no food for them.

This is going to continue to be a huge problem for humanity and our oceans unless we put a stop to it. Whether it be sacrificing your life like Moore did or just doing something as simple as picking up a piece of plastic off the ground. Every little thing adds up to help end this crisis. One way to help is by just changing the material and avoiding plastic. For example, you could use reusable shopping bags, glass, paper bags, polyesters, etc. Those are all great alternatives instead of using that harmful plastic. Another fantastic and easy way to help is to recycle your plastic properly at one of your local recycling centers. These facilities transport your recyclables to the landfills safely, ensuring no plastic blows out. If there is not already a coastal cleanup organization in your area, then start one! These organizations simply are “communities rallied together with the common goal of collecting and documenting the trash littering their coastline.” Getting involved and educating others about marine debris is the first step to stopping this crisis.

Plastic is one of the most harmful materials in the ocean, affecting it in many ways every day. If we do not stop this, it will only continue. The good news is that there are ways we can prevent this from happening.

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Plastic pollution in the ocean. (2019, Jun 20). Retrieved from