How Much Ocean Plastic is Available?
We all know plastic pollution is a problem for our planet’s oceans. We’ve seen enough videos of floating garbage patches, litter-strewn beaches, and impacted wildlife to realize there’s way too much waste reaching our waters.
But quantifying the magnitude of this crisis is essential to fully grapple with this issue, not to mention measuring the effectiveness of any potentially mitigating efforts. If you can’t gauge it to begin with, it’s hard to evaluate the progress being made… or how much more is desperately needed.
So let’s get out the calculators and attempt to wrap our heads around this challenge, as well as the opportunities to improve the situation through reclaiming and recycling these ocean plastics. The statistics are large and overwhelming, but collectively we can also make a big difference.
Quantifying the problem
Some numbers might make the problem not seem quite so bad. After all, despite 300 million metric tons of plastic being produced each year, only 2.6% of that ends up in the ocean.
But that tiny percentage means an estimated eight million metric tons end up in oceans annually. That number is so huge it’s almost meaningless, so let’s break it down a bit.
To give it some perspective, imagine a garbage truck full of plastic relentlessly dumping its load into the water every minute of every day. Global river ways alone deliver between one and two million metric tons to the oceans each year. It’s going to add up pretty darn quick.
Worldwide, half of all plastic produced is single-use. That means its purpose is extremely short-lived, while its environmental impact lasts for decades. That is 150 million metric tons of plastic entering the world each year, just to be tossed aside almost as quickly as it was created.
And since we’re talking about annual volumes, this problem is compounded exponentially over time. Since plastic was first introduced in the 1950s, mankind has produced the weight equivalent of one billion elephants of the stuff, nearly all of which has since ended up in landfills or as pollution.
It’s also critical to remember that unlike almost every other substance on the planet, plastic takes a really long time to decompose. Some plastics will still be around 1,000 years from now! And those ubiquitous plastic soda and water bottles can last for 450 years if they’re not recycled.
Not all created equal
Ocean plastic also presents a unique environmental challenge due to its diversity. Not only are tons of it entering our waterways, but it comes in many shapes, sizes, and molecular compositions.
One of the most insidious attributes of ocean plastic is that although it takes many, many years to decompose, it doesn’t take much time at all for plastic to break down into smaller and smaller pieces. This makes reclamation and cleanup more difficult while simultaneously created a broad array of repercussions.
Aquatic life can get tangled up in abandoned fishing lines, beaches can be pockmarked with bottle caps and plastic bags, and tiny fragments can drift and settle into the deepest reaches of the seas, killing some life while being ingested by at least 180 different marine species.
And it’s not just animals that are dying. Up to a million people in the developing world are estimated to die each year as a result of poor waste management.
While environmental destruction should be more than enough reason to change our ways, there are some real dollars-and-cents costs to the ocean plastic crisis as well.
Oceans are a major part of the global economy, and plastic pollution impacts that as well. Ocean plastics have caused a 1-5% decline in the marine economy, representing $500 billion to $2.5 trillion annually.
From commercial fishing to leisure activities to tourism to property values, plastic pollution in our waters has a ripple effect felt around the world. Communities are spending millions of dollars to clean up their beaches and shorelines, with tourism dipping as scenic views and pristine sandy waterfronts are overtaken with pollution.
Commercial fishing costs have also increased as ships must travel further to find enough fish for their increasing demand while dealing with spoiled hauls and damaged boats and equipment from waterborne waste. Meanwhile “ghost nets” are capturing fish and birds that will never be used for food.
Reducing the damage
With a problem this vast, it’s easy to throw your hands in the air, giving in to feelings of helplessness. But there are things we can do that make a real, measurable difference.
Not only can we reduce consumption, but we can prevent plastics from reaching our oceans in the first place. Meanwhile, we can extract and repurpose some of what’s already arrived.
At Oceanworks, we see the opportunity to reduce ocean plastic pollution while simultaneously reducing the creation of additional virgin plastics that may eventually enter the waste stream. This is a comprehensive salve on the plague of ocean plastics that impacts every creature on the planet, turning harmful plastic waste into raw materials for new products.This problem threatens everyone. But with a continued focus on plastic pollution and the drive and will of both consumers and manufacturers to Sea Plastic Differently, we believe in a future free from plastic pollution. Join us on our mission to end plastic waste and see what’s possible.