There are over 150 million
tonnes of plastic waste in
the oceans today & the
amount of plastic in the
world’s oceans are forecast to
grow to 250 million tonnes by
The World Economic Forum, January 2016
Around the world plastic pollution has become a growing
plague, clogging our waterways, damaging marine
ecosystems and entering the food web.
Approximately 8 million tonnes of anthropogenic garbage ends up in our ocean annually of
which 80% has come directly from the land. It falls from garbage and container trucks, spills out
of garbage bins, blows from landfills, is littered and also deliberately dumped.
It flows into our oceans from our catchments (rivers, creeks, lakes) and through
Source: Ocean-wide Gyres, NOAA
Our oceans are dynamic systems, made up of a complex network of currents that circulate water around the world. Large systems of these currents coupled with wind and the earth’s rotation create gyres, massive, slow rotating whirlpools in which plastic rubbish can accumulate.
Most of the research on plastic trash circulating in oceanic gyres has focused on the North Pacific but there are 5 major oceanic gyres worldwide, with several smaller gyres in Alaska and Antarctica. Marine researchers are still studying the extent to which plastic pollution exists in the world’s oceans.
There are two types of Micro Plastic – Primary and Secondary. Primary Micro Plastics is plastic that is designed to be small like nurdles and microbeads. Secondary Micro Plastics occur from the breaking up of all plastic. In the ocean, some plastics sink and some float and some plastics will sink when water-logged or hover at various levels of the water column. Sunlight, wave action and interaction with marine life cause floating plastics to fragment, breaking into increasingly smaller particles which are easily ingested by marine wildlife including those that are then consumed by humans.
Around 90% of seabird species, 22% of large marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins, all sea turtle species, and a growing list of fish species, including shellfish, have been documented with plastic in their gut. When marine animals eat plastic they can die from internal blockages, injury, dehydration and starvation.
As plastic particles circulate through oceans, they act as sponges for waterborne contaminants such as PCBs, DDT and other pesticides, PAHs and many hydrocarbons that have washed down through our catchments. These persistent organic pollutants (“POPs), ad-sorb onto plastic pollution in high concentrations. It is also likely that these POPs are absorbed into the tissue of many marine organisms that mistakenly consume them. Plastic pollution is not a benign material in the ocean.
There is now evidence that hard plastics release endocrine disrupting chemicals, like BPA, into the ocean over time. There are now over 200 sites off 22 countries with significant concentrations of BPA.
Marine wildlife can become entangled in many different types
of plastic causing restriction of movement, drowning,
infections and amputation. Arguably, the biggest cause of
entanglement is lost and discarded fishing equipment such
as ropes, nets and lines, known collectively as “Ghost Nets”
– all made from plastic. It is estimated that there are over
650,000 tonnes drifting in our oceans today which will
remain in that form for about 600 years before eventually
fragmenting into micro plastic.
Plastic bags, bottle rings and other
consumer plastics can also engulf
and smother or become wrapped
around parts of the animal.
Impact on Humans
There is mounting evidence that humans are ingesting, absorbing and inhaling micro plastics. Conservative estimates have suggested that we are taking in an average of 2000 plastic particles per week (University of Newcastle study).
Is Recycling THE Solution?
Once we have created an item made from petroleum-based plastic we have to assume that it will be around indefinitely knowing that it does not quickly and harmlessly decompose. Certain plastic items are not recyclable which often means that they will end up in landfills or the environment. Others can be recycled once or twice and others can be recycled many times. However, this does not mean that they will actually end up being recycled and, even if they are recycled, what will happen to them during or after their second life and so on.
With 8 million tonnes of garbage pouring into our oceans annually, do we have the time and money to plug all the holes in a broken recycling system or should we go closer to the source in our efforts to reduce plastic pollution?
In 2016 only 14% of all plastic was recycled globally (source: Ellen McArthur Foundation). As of 2018, only 16% of plastic packaging in Australia was recovered and recycled (APCO Report 2019). This was mainly due to:
- Problems and complexities of sorting and processing
- Mixed plastics (ie; softs plastics and food packaging) do not have a high recyclability
- Contaminated plastics cannot be recycled
- Consumer confusion about what can actually be recycled
- Consumer lack of faith in the integrity of recycling
- It is not economically viable eg; lack of markets for recycled items
- Plastic producers and food & beverage companies prefer virgin plastic rather than recycled content.
Source: WRAP and the circular economy.
A recycling system based on the premise of a true circular economy with a government-funded, publicly regulated Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) at its core can be a cornerstone of the solution to plastic pollution.
Links to research, studies and articles can be found here
We would like to thank research organisations The 5 Gyres, Tangaroa Blue and countless waste management personnel for sharing their knowledge and advice, for the important work that they have carried out for many years and for providing Plastic Pollution Solutions with the most up-to-date information and research.
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