Urgent Need for Solutions to Plastic Waste in Our Oceans

Jun 8, 2023


Plastic pollution in our oceans has reached alarming levels, posing a significant threat to marine life and ecosystems. According to UNESCO, a staggering 8-10 million tonnes of plastic find their way into the sea every year. This massive influx of plastic waste has devastating consequences for the health of our oceans and the creatures that inhabit them. It is crucial that we find effective solutions to tackle this global environmental crisis.

The Scale of the Problem

Each year, approximately 400 million tonnes of plastic products are produced worldwide, with nearly half of them being single-use items such as shopping bags, cups, and packaging materials. Shockingly, an estimated 8-10 million tonnes of these plastics end up in the ocean annually. To put this into perspective, if all the plastic waste were flattened to the thickness of a plastic bag, it would cover an area of 11,000 square kilometers (4,250 square miles), which is about the size of small countries like Qatar, Jamaica, or the Bahamas.

If we continue at this alarming rate, the accumulated plastic waste could grow to an area larger than 550,000 square kilometers (212,000 square miles) over the next 50 years. This massive expanse of plastic pollution would be equivalent to the size of France, Thailand, or Ukraine.

How Does Plastic End Up in the Ocean?

Plastics are the most common form of ocean litter, accounting for a staggering 80 percent of all marine pollution. Improper waste disposal systems that dump rubbish into rivers and streams are the primary sources of plastic pollution in the ocean. Additionally, fishing nets and other marine equipment are often dumped directly into the ocean by ships and fishing boats.

Microplastics, tiny particles less than 5mm (one-fifth of an inch) in length, also find their way into the ocean. These microplastics pose a significant environmental concern as they can be ingested by marine life, causing harm to both animals and humans. It is estimated that there are currently 50 trillion to 75 trillion pieces of microplastics in the ocean.

The Health Implications of Microplastics

While research on the health effects of human consumption of microplastics is limited, some studies suggest that these particles can accumulate in organs such as the liver, kidneys, and intestines. The concern lies in the potential for inflammation, oxidative stress, and cellular damage caused by microplastics.

Science writer and author Erica Cirino explains, “These little particles in the ocean were breaking into little pieces and being consumed by the wildlife living there at an almost unimaginable scale. The main problem is that pieces of plastic contain toxic chemicals, and these chemicals are already known to interfere with human hormones and animal hormones. They may cause the accumulation of toxins in the body that may lead to ill effects over time.”

The Environmental Hazard of Plastics

Plastics, being synthetic materials made from polymers derived from petroleum or natural gas, pose a significant environmental hazard due to their non-biodegradable nature. Unlike organic materials, plastics do not easily break down, persisting in the environment for hundreds of years.

When plastics enter the ocean, they initially float on the surface for a considerable period. Eventually, they sink to the seafloor, becoming buried in layers of sediment. It is estimated that only 1 percent of the total plastics in the ocean are visible on the surface, while the remaining 99 percent exists as microplastic fragments far below.

The Search for Solutions

Given the magnitude of the plastic waste crisis in our oceans, finding effective solutions is of utmost importance. Governments, organizations, and individuals must come together to address this pressing issue. Here are some potential solutions that can help combat plastic pollution:

1. Reduce Single-Use Plastics

One of the most effective ways to mitigate plastic pollution is by reducing the production and consumption of single-use plastics. Governments and businesses can implement policies and regulations that encourage the use of eco-friendly alternatives such as reusable bags, bottles, and packaging materials. Individuals can also make a difference by opting for reusable products in their daily lives.

2. Improve Waste Management Systems

Investing in robust waste management systems is crucial to prevent plastic waste from entering our oceans. Implementing proper waste disposal methods, recycling initiatives, and promoting awareness about responsible waste management can significantly reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in our waters.

3. Encourage Innovation and Research

Supporting research and innovation in the development of sustainable materials and alternatives to plastic is vital. Governments and organizations should invest in research projects that focus on finding eco-friendly alternatives, such as biodegradable plastics or materials made from renewable resources.

4. Promote Education and Awareness

Raising awareness about the impact of plastic pollution on our oceans is essential for fostering behavioral change. Educational campaigns, public outreach programs, and initiatives in schools and communities can help instill a sense of responsibility and encourage individuals to make environmentally conscious choices.

5. Encourage Corporate Responsibility

Businesses have a significant role to play in addressing plastic pollution. Encouraging corporate responsibility involves holding companies accountable for their environmental practices and promoting sustainable packaging and production methods.

6. Support International Cooperation

Addressing plastic pollution requires international cooperation and collaboration. Governments, NGOs, and international bodies should work together to develop and implement effective policies, initiatives, and regulations to reduce plastic waste and protect our oceans.

What can governments do?

Plastic waste in our oceans is a pressing environmental issue that demands urgent action. The scale of the problem, the health implications of microplastics, and the sources of plastic pollution highlight the need for multifaceted solutions. By reducing single-use plastics, improving waste management systems, encouraging innovation, promoting education and awareness, fostering corporate responsibility, and supporting international cooperation, we can begin to combat plastic pollution and protect the health of our oceans. Together, we can create a sustainable future for generations to come.