Plastic Pollution of Earth’s Oceans

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Approximately 300 million tons of plastic is produced every year (Cressey 2016). It’s disposable, yet long-lasting nature makes it critical to pose the question “where does all this plastic end up?” A large quantity of the plastic produced eventually ends up floating on the surface of the ocean- some even reach the seafood humans eat (Rochman, 2016). Plastic is a cheap, versatile, disposable material that does not degrade easily, making it a perfect candidate for a variety of uses in the industrial sphere.

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Plastic floating in Earth’s oceans has caused much concern for the future health of ocean ecosystems as they are largely unexplored territory (US Department of Commerce, 2018). The National Ocean Service states that up to 80% of the ocean is “unmapped, unobserved and unexplored” (US Department of Commerce, 2018). Acknowledging that humans know next to nothing about how these vast ecosystems work is the first step in recognizing that humans also do not know how foreign agents like plastic will impact it (US Department of Commerce, 2018). Already the effects of plastic in Earth’s oceans have caused a plethora of complex problems for marine life, for plastic is easy to become entangled in, as well as poisoned or suffocated by. Many animals also ingest plastics, causing health complications or death (Frankeker & Law). Efforts to eradicate plastics from Earth’s oceans must be accelerated if humans ever are to undo the damages done by industrial infrastructure. In this policy brief, I will outline the challenges of quantifying the amount of plastic in the oceans, the distinctions between types of plastics, the harmful effects of microplastics, the usefulness of seabirds as indicators of plastic quantities, and the dangers plastics pose to marine rafting organisms.

Challenges in Quantifying Ocean Plastics

The amount of plastic in the oceans at present-day has proved to be difficult to quantify (Cressey, 2016). It is thought that plastics make up around 50-80% of ocean debris (Cressey, 2016). While this is a large margin, it is the closest scientists can get to sound data surrounding these questions (Cressey, 2016). There are many factors that contribute to the difficulty in collecting better data on how much plastic resides in the Earth’s oceans, including the sheer vastness of the ocean itself, as well as the many countless virtually invisible pieces of plastic that often get overlooked (Cressey, 2016). It is also difficult to know how much plastic is entering the oceans from land sources (Cressey, 2016). One study suggests that between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tons of plastic end up in oceans each year (Cressey, 2016). Again, the large range between these two figures shows that research on this issue is challenging. At some point, one must ask if it is as vital to know exactly how much plastic the ocean holds within it as we think. Whether the amount of plastic added to the ocean every year is at the low end, closer to 5 million, or the high end at almost 13 million, the problems surrounding the issue and the methods of mitigation are likely to stay the same. In order to find a solution to ocean plastics, it is important to recognize how difficult data collection can be in the ocean.

Categorization of Plastics

One important distinction that should be made early in the discussion of plastics is their distinct categorizations regarding their size. Microplastics are plastic items that are easily visible and can be captured relatively easily (planet experts). For a plastic item to be considered a macroplastic, it must be larger than 5mm in diameter. Microplastic, however, is a term coined by Richard Thompson in 2004 to describe plastic that is smaller, harder to see, and more difficult to extract from oceans, therefore making them more difficult to study (Cressey, 2016). In order for plastics to be considered microplastics, they must be between 5mm- 0.05mm in diameter (Wagner, 2014). Microplastics are often considered to be more dangerous due to their ability to pass through food chains easier than macroplastics (Wagner, 2014). The last category, nano-plastics, is created when microplastics break down into nano-sized particles (planet experts). These plastics are smaller than 0.05mm in diameter. Over the lifetime of plastic, it can break down from a macroplastic to a microplastic, and eventually a nano plastic. The distinction between the size of each category of plastics becomes important later when discussing the different effects that correlate with size.

The Harmful Effects of Microplastics:

Microplastics are the most dangerous out of the three categories of size for two fundamental reasons. (Wagner, 2014). Firstly, bioaccumulation, or the buildup of a substance within a given system, is more likely to occur with smaller plastics (Wagner, 2014). A variety of animals ingest microplastics, from plankton to large aquatic mammals and many organisms in between. This plastic can remain within their bodies, accumulating, until death. Secondly, the ability of plastic to absorb and de-absorb harmful chemicals and pathogens, as well as microbial communities makes plastic dangerous (Wagner, 2014). Plastics act as vessels for these harmful agents to spread, killing the organisms that ingest them (Wagner, 2014). One particular study, “Microplastics in freshwater ecosystems: what we know and what we need to know”, written by Wagner in 2014, focused on the effects of plastics in freshwater ecosystems, rather than the ocean, yet still gave a great deal of insight as to the relationship between plastics, the harmful agents they can carry and organisms that they affect (Wagner, 2014). Microplastics can accumulate metals and compounds that are toxic and can bioaccumulate in organisms (Wagner, 2014). In their study of lugworms, which are sandworms of the Annelida phylum, the presence of plastic increased bioaccumulation of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which are artificial chemicals made of hydrogen, carbon and chlorine that easily passes through the water cycle and persists for a long time (Wagner, 2014), (EPA). PCBs can be very toxic to the environments and the organisms that they encounter. The presence of microplastics also increased mortality and decreased fertility in algae (Wagner, 2014). In addition, plastics can affect water quality for humans since microplastics can transfer diverse microbial communities that live on plastics (Wagner, 2014). Researchers even found pathogens like members of the Vibrio genus which is a form of bacteria that is known to be detrimental to human health (Wagner, 2014). Plastic must be identified as the harmful and dangerous toxin it is to the oceans if any real change is to be incited.

Seabirds as Indicator Species

Ocean plastics have affected biodiversity in a variety of ways over the last decades. One of those ways is through the poisoning and death of many seabird species (Frankeker & Law, 2015). It has been observed that seabirds, specifically of the Procellariidae order, serve as excellent indicators of quantities of plastic pollution in waterways (Frankeker & Law, 2015). These biological indicators are commonly found washed up on shore, dead, with plastic debris in their bodies (Frankeker & Law, 2015). It has been found over numerous studies that the amount of pollution in the area has a direct correlation with how much plastic local seabirds have inside their bodies (Frankeker & Law, 2015). Seabirds like fulmars, petrels, and shearwaters are at the center of these studies because of their foraging tendencies and bodily composition (Frankeker & Law, 2015). Seabirds have two functioning stomachs (Frankeker & Law, 2015). The first “glandular” stomach is where sustenance is initially stored if a seabird needs to regurgitate to feed its young, while the second “muscular” stomach holds the majority of hard plastics (Frankeker & Law, 2015). Seabirds however are able to pass plastics over time (Frankeker & Law, 2015). This allows for scientists to research differences in the number of plastic pollutions in both local areas and migration sites (Frankeker & Law, 2015). By using seabirds as a biological indicator, scientists can gather valuable data on levels of ocean plastics that would otherwise be lost.

The Effects of Plastics on Marine Rafting Organisms

Biodiversity is also affected by plastic in oceans through the phenomenon of “marine rafting” (Branes & Miller). Marine rafting is an event where organisms latch on to a surface and can travel either long or short distances to new places (Branes & Miller). The organisms that partake in this are very diverse (Branes & Miller). The example of marine rafting organisms that Branes and Miller give in their 2004 work “Drifting Plastic and its Consequences for Sessile Organism Dispersal in the Atlantic Ocean”, are organisms that range from algae to lizards (Branes & Miller). While marine rafting has existed for millions of years, the creation of commercial shipping has completely changed the means by which it happens (Branes & Miller). Through the availability of abundant and fast-moving vessels to marine raft, organisms have been dispersed at a rate far more rapid than any time before industrial shipping (Branes & Miller). This is vitally important since the introduction of non-native species into new environments has proved to be a major factor in biodiversity loss (Branes & Miller). One area of particular concern is the sub-polar regions (Branes & Miller). Cold temperatures are one deterrent for nonnative species looking to take root in a new ecosystem (Branes & Miller). The sub polar region’s cold temperatures had been protecting them from invasion, however, today, this area is increasingly more vulnerable as it warms (Branes & Miller). This is especially alarming because the southern ocean is the only place identified as having no known invasive species (Branes & Miller). In addition, the southern ocean has the highest level of endemic species or species that are only native to one area, dwelling there, making it of the utmost importance to protect (Branes & Miller). The destruction of aquatic biodiversity is just one of the many effects that plastics have on complex ocean ecosystems. I will now offer the policy recommendations and mitigation strategies for ocean plastics that I have found in my research.

Policy Option #1: Targeting Entry Points

One policy option is to focus mitigation efforts to decrease plastics entering waterways (Rochman, 2016). Rochman contests in her work “Strategies for reducing ocean plastic debris should be diverse and guided by science” that ideally, among the sites that should be targeted are China and Indonesia as both of these countries produce large amounts of plastic and are thought to be main entry points for plastic to infiltrate oceans (Rochman, 2016). In addition, Indonesia is a good candidate because the sea is semi closed off, which accumulates high densities of plastic, causing major ecological issues in the area (Branes & Miller, 2004). One model predicts that by focusing efforts on the sources of plastic and entryways into water systems, 31% of plastics could be removed by 2025 (Rochman, 2016). Focusing energy on extracting plastic out of the ocean, however, yielded only 17% of plastics removed by 2025 (Rochman, 2016). One way to control the amount of plastic entering the oceans is by creating policy that outlaws specific plastic products that are particularly harmful, for example, microbes from beauty and personal care products (Rochman, 2016). In addition, putting caps on plastic production could be a way to ensure companies are not producing more than needed. Taxes on companies that have plastic in their products could provide incentives to switch to a different, more eco-friendly medium of packaging. The various, complex stakeholders that this approach to plastic pollution mitigation would involve include any company that produces plastic, Indonesian and Chinese government organizations to enforce new limitations on companies, and the general public that uses these products.

Challenges of Policy Option #1:

While it makes sense to stop production of plastic at the source by targeting big corporations and the government, it is important to remember that the general public also plays an important role (S.B Sheavly & K.Mk Register). These policies are likely to be met with a great deal of pushback from companies that rely on plastic for producing their merchandise (S.B Sheavly & K.Mk Register). Also, in order for a policy option like this to be successful, there would have to be a great number of supporters. For this to happen in Indonesia and China would be unlikely due to their government’s primary focus on industrialization over environmental concerns (S.B Sheavly & K.Mk Register). This became evident when Indonesia pledged to keep greenhouse gas emissions at a certain level through the 2015 Paris Agreement, yet consistently exceeded that threshold with plans for more greenhouse gas causing palm oil plantation expansion. If Indonesia did agree to a revolution on plastic production, it is highly likely that those promises would not be fulfilled.

Policy Option #2: Geoengineering

Another policy option is to fund technology to make more eco-friendly plastic (S.B Sheavly & K.M. Register). This would mean that humans would be able to mitigate, the quality of Earth’s oceans through geoengineering, or the creation of innovative technology to control or mitigate the climate and its rapid changes (S.B Sheavly & K.Mk Register). If plastic was biodegradable, then the risk it poses to Earth’s oceans would decrease dramatically (S.B Sheavly & K.Mk Register). Issues like aquatic biodiversity loss, the poor water quality of oceans, and changing ocean ecosystems would be slowed, or even stopped, with the implementation of the right technology. Funding for a project like this could prove to be difficult, whether it was from a government agency or an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) (S.B Sheavly & K.Mk Register). Other stakeholders would include researchers and scientists to develop the technology to improve the qualities of plastic, companies who would implement this new plastic in place of their old plastic, and citizens who use the end product (S.B Sheavly & K.Mk Register).

One argument against geoengineering plastic production is that it will not change the minds and habits of the general public (Hamilton, 2013). While a technological advancement might help the short-term effects of ocean pollution, there is a need for a serious change in the way humans see their environment (Hamilton, 2013). Many people believe that geoengineering undermines human’s ability to change behaviors which are the root cause of environmental concern (Hamilton, 2013). Technology can likely only solve the issue to an extent, and if ocean plastics is solved, it is likely that a new problem will sprout up in its place eventually. Geoengineering puts humans in a constant cycle of careless and disruptive behavior rectified by technology (Hamilton, 2013). Instead, if efforts were placed more on educating the public and creating a global community of environmental allies on a local scale, efforts for not just ocean pollution, but for many other environmental concerns would slowly improve.


The issue of plastic pollution in Earth’s oceans has many diverse, moving parts. It is difficult to identify exactly how much plastic is in the ocean, and therefore, how severe the problem is. Regardless of the exact quantity of plastic in the oceans, there are clear effects on aquatic biodiversity. Without dramatic changes in both the compositions of plastics, as well as human’s relationship to Earth’s oceans, this problem will continue to worsen. For humans to see that oceans are not dumping grounds for disposable human waste will take time, however, with correct education of the risks of plastic and increased funding to programs and research, oceans might once again be free from the suffocating grip of plastic pollution.

Works Cited

Barnes, D. K. A., and P. Milner. “Drifting Plastic and Its Consequences for Sessile Organism Dispersal in the Atlantic Ocean.” SpringerLink, Springer, 11 Nov. 2004,

Chelsea, Rochman M. “Strategies for Reducing Ocean Plastic Debris Should Be Diverse and Guided by Science.” IOP Science, IOP Publishing, 23 Mar. 2015,

Cressey, Daniel. “Bottles, Bags, Ropes and Toothbrushes: the Struggle to Track Ocean Plastics.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 17 Aug. 2016,

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2018. “Learn about Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs). Washington, DC.

Hamilton, Clive. “Opinion | Geoengineering: Our Last Hope, or a False Promise?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2018,

Lehner, Roman. “Macro-, Meso-, Micro-, but What About Nano plastic?” Planet Experts, 4 Nov. 2015,

“Microplastics and Nanoplastics.” Wagening University and Research ,

“Ocean Plastics Pollution: A Global Tragedy for Our Oceans and Sea Life.” Ocean Plastics Pollution,

Sheavly, S B, and K M Register. “Marine Debris and Plastics: Environmental Concerns, Sources, Impacts, and Solutions.” SpringerLink, 28 Nov. 2007,

US Department of Commerce, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “How Much of the Ocean Have We Explored?” NOAA’s National Ocean Service, 11 July 2018,

van Franeker, Jan A, and Kara Lavender Law. “Seabirds, Gyres and Global Trends in Plastic Pollution.” NeuroImage, Academic Press, 11 Apr. 2015,

Wagner, Martin. “Microplastics in Freshwater Ecosystems: What We Know and What We Need to Know.” SpringerLink, 2014,       

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Plastic Pollution of Earth’s Oceans. (2021, Jun 03). Retrieved from