Updated: Dec 29, 2021
Around 8-12 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, and if it continues there will be 1 ton of plastic to every 3 tons of fish in the ocean by 2025. Plastic has many consequences for the environment. For example, it may be a threat to animals, because they think it is food. This means that there are animals who choke on plastic or die from starvation.
When the plastic floats in the ocean, it can absorb environmental poisons and dangerous chemicals that the animals consume when they eat the plastic, and people ingest it when they, for example, eat fish. Plastic is also ugly when seen lying in nature, and it can clog streams and choke plants when it piles up.
Where is the plastic in the ocean coming from?
Plastic is discharged from several different sources. 80% of the waste that ends in the ocean comes from land-based activities (landfills, industries, storm drains, tourism, untreated water waste) and the remaining 20% comes from ocean-based activities (cruise ships, ferries, fishing, container shipping, off-shore industries like oil and gas platforms).
Which countries does most of the plastic in the ocean come from?
Approximately 60% of the plastic in the ocean comes from China, Indonesia, The Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. The reason why these countries have a high plastic pollution is because they are countries experiencing economic growth. This means that the population is buying more goods. This is happening without the countries having an effective waste disposal system. Instead it is nature (often rivers and other bodies of water) that is used as a trashcan, since there aren’t many other options.
However, it is important to remember that the countries where you see a lot of plastic pollution are often also the countries that produce a lot of the products that we in the West over consume without reflecting on the consequences.
What are the sources of micro plastic?
Micro plastic comes from several different places. It comes from usage of products such as dishcloths, plastic sponges, car tires and clothes made from synthetic fibres. It also comes from larger pieces of plastic that are lying in nature and slowly degrading into smaller and smaller pieces through waves and sunlight, for example. It can come from, for example, exfoliating creams, where micro plastic beads are added. It can also come from industries spilling the small plastic pellets that are used to make plastic. Most of the micro plastic ends up in nature and in the ocean because it is flushed out through the storm drains or with the runoff of rainwater.
How many animals die each year from plastic pollution, and what are the consequences for ocean life?
It is impossible to know with certainty how many animals die from plastic pollution, but several studies show that the pollution has massive consequences on wildlife. For example, a recent study from the University of Essex and Plymouth Marine Laboratory found plastic in 102 out of 102 sea turtles from the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean as well as the Mediterranean Sea.
What does it mean for human health that there is so much plastic in the ocean? What does plastic do to us? Is it dangerous to our health?
We know that people, due to the extensive plastic pollution, ingest plastic through air pollution and some foods. But researchers do not yet know a lot about the physical and/or health consequences plastic has for the human body. This is primarily due to the fact that it is very difficult to research, because of the many factors that need to be controlled (we are constantly exposed to various different chemicals from many different sources throughout our everyday life). A report released in the beginning of 2019 shows the hidden cost of plastic and plastic pollution on human health, showing that at every stage of its lifecycle, plastic poses distinct risk to human health, from when the oil is extracted from the ground to waste management.
Animal research has shown that there is a decrease in the reproductive ability in mussels and others, therefore we believe that we should err on the side of caution, meaning that we should be hesitant when using plastic constantly until research can prove that it isn’t harmful. What is being done politically?
In December 2018 the EU approved a strategy for plastic which, among others, forbids plastic cutlery and plates, Q-tips made from plastic and sticks for balloons. The strategy also focuses on improving plastic product designs and the goal of recycling 90% of all bottles, cups and glasses. Denmark followed suit with a national plastic plan of action with a series of good suggestions of how Denmark can be a part of minimising plastic pollution. Although Plastic Change and several other environmental organisations have criticised this plan for lacking concrete goals for several of the initiatives, and it is sorely lacking proper fund allocation to reach these goals. Who bears the responsibility for the pollution? And why?
Everyone in the community has a responsibility. The plastic pollution is a result of our throw-away society. The manufacturers and the industry have provided consumers with plastic products that can satisfy the momentary need (instead of thinking smart product design). This has happened without the politicians setting boundaries for or requirements of how these products are made and how they are to be disposed of again.
Are there repercussions when plastic ends on up on the ocean floor?
Scientists believe that 80% of the plastic in the aquatic environment ends on the ocean floor, where it potentially poses a threat equal to the plastic on the ocean surface. Plastic erodes over time into micro plastic. The researchers do not yet know to what extent the disintegrated plastic floats to surface again or if it stays on the ocean floor. Organisms that live in the depths of the ocean live on and off of plastic and filtrates the broken-down plastic. Through this the plastic particles find their way into the food chain. However, this is an area that calls for further research. Out of sight is not out of mind.
As an individual what can I do to minimise plastic pollution?
There are many small everyday changes that can be done to help minimise plastic pollution. First and foremost, we need to use less plastic, and this includes those who produce and sell products and everyone who uses the products in their day-to-day life.
We have provided 7 good examples of how to do this that you can follow and share with others.
Is there an alternative product we can use instead of plastic?
In many ways plastic is a fantastic product, but it isn’t always the best material to use, and sometimes you don’t even need an alternative. We have a rule of thumb that says to avoid single-use plastic, because it is disposed of after one use.
Alternatives to plastic could be bamboo, glass, fabric or metal, but sturdy high-quality plastic can also be the right choice because it can be reused time after time. An example of this are the thick plastic grocery bags that last for several years.
Can’t we just use bio and biodegradable plastic instead?
There are other materials that can replace plastic in certain products. Here we differentiate between bioplastic and biodegradable plastic. It is important to remember that these are two different things:
Bioplastic is made of carbon from plant materials, but it has the same chemical structure as normal plastic, therefore it doesn’t degrade in nature. However, this type can be recycled.
Biodegradable plastic is produced from carbon found in fossil fuels or biomass and it has a chemical structure different to that of bioplastic and regular plastic. The material can decompose but it requires specific bacteria and temperatures for this to happen. This type cannot be recycled. Therefore, we do not recommend this type of plastic.