From bike parts and running shoes to the computer keys I’m typing this on - plastic is everywhere. It’s in the air we breath., Even if—like me—you’re striving to reduce your use of single-use plastics, they’re all around us. Plastic (not cotton) is the fabric of our lives. With so much plastic in the world, it’s inevitable that it ends up in every conceivable place. Most notably the ocean.
How Much Plastic is Really in the Ocean?
Every year, 8 Million metric tons of plastic winds up in the ocean. Imagine standing on the beach and watching a full garbage truck unload into the ocean every minute of every day. That’s the equivalent. Pretty unsettling, no? And those 8 Million tons are being added to the estimated 150 Million tons already floating around out there.
What Happens to the Plastic in the Ocean?
Some of it travels long and far, gets caught in gyres, before swirling together into one of the oceans’ many ‘garbage islands’ like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, while some others are consumed or wash back up on shore. We now know that 100% of sea turtles and 60% of seabirds have some forms of plastic in their digestive system by the time they die and that over 700 species have been negatively affected by consuming or getting tangled in ocean plastics. This has gone on far too long.
Where is All This Plastic Coming From?
If you live in a country with a developed waste disposal system and you're having a hard time imagining that plastics get from your landfill or recycling center into the ocean, you’re not wrong. Very little of the ocean’s plastics originate from North America or Europe, with the exception of some fishing industry waste. The majority of the ocean’s garbage is a result of mismanaged plastic waste disposal in developing countries. Without systems in place for waste removal, much of the ocean’s garbage is placed directly into rivers and waterways as a way of disposal.
Of the world’s 20 most polluted rivers, 15 are in Asia. And, due to the perfect storm of high population density and heavy rainfall, they contribute to two-thirds of all the global ocean plastic. For example, the Pasig River is a 25 kilometer river in the Philippines that was once an important source of fresh water. In the 1940s, as residences moved inland, the waterway became a kind of natural sewer system for the factories that remained there. By the 1990s the river was considered biologically dead. The Pasig is the second most dense contributor and the 8th largest contributor of plastics to the ocean, with the enormous Yangtze river in China still clocking in at number one, by contributing up to 55%. But don’t forget, China used to purchase much of North America’s plastics, which greatly contributed to the sheer quantity of plastic in China. So some of that waste was North America’s, to begin with.
What Can I Do?
If the ocean’s garbage isn’t coming from your backyard, it can sometimes feel too impossible to deal with. But as we’ve mentioned before, making your environmentalism intersectional is crucial to creating any real global change. Environmental and natural disasters tend to affect developing countries first but the impact can be felt around the world. I encourage you to research international organizations that aim to stop the problems where they start, like Indonesia's National Marine Debris Action Plan, that aims to reduce their contribution to ocean plastic debris by 70% in the next 6 years.
Should you still participate in local beach cleanups and reducing your overall use of plastics? Absolutely! But it’s time for all of us to look closer at the disease and to rely less on the bandaids. Do you have a favorite organization working towards cleaner international waters? Please let us know!