Ever wondered what happens if the plastic we throw away reaches the ocean?

The scale of Marine Plastic Pollution

Every year, billions of pounds of more plastic are in the world's oceans. Studies estimate there are now 15–51 trillion pieces of plastic in the world's oceans — from the equator to the poles, from Arctic ice sheets to the sea floor. No one square mile of surface ocean anywhere on earth is plastic pollution-free. This is mainly caused by plastic particles ranging from large original materials like bottles and bags to microplastics formed from the fragmentation of plastic material, forming marine debris. Marine debris is the discarded waste floating on the ocean floor. More than 80% of the marine debris is made of plastic. Around 98% of this volume is created by land-based activities, and sea-based activities generate the remaining 2%.

Sources of Marine Plastic Pollution

The primary sources of plastic debris found in the ocean are land-based, coming from urban and stormwater runoff, sewer overflows, littering, inadequate waste disposal and management, industrial activities, tire abrasion, construction, and illegal dumping. Ocean-based plastic pollution originates primarily from fishing, nautical activities, and aquaculture. But why does this happen? One of the main reasons is that many countries still lack the proper infrastructure to prevent plastic pollution, ranging from sanitary landfills; incineration facilities; recycling capacity, and circular economy infrastructure; to proper management and disposal of waste systems. This leads to ‘plastic leakage’ into rivers and the ocean. The legal and illegal global trade of plastic waste may also damage ecosystems where waste management systems are insufficient to contain plastic waste. For instance, insufficient and inadequate recycling facilities can lead to a significant amount of plastic ( PVC & PS) waste ending up in landfills or as litter, which can eventually make its way into waterways and oceans. And also, if plastic waste is not correctly sorted with non-recyclable materials, it becomes challenging to recycle them effectively. This is why many countries in the world follow strict plastic segregation and recycling process to avoid contamination. Also, Abandoned plastic fishing nets and longlines – known as ghost gear – is also a large source, making up about 1% of plastic waste at sea. Marine aquaculture contributes to the problem, too, mainly when the polystyrene foam used to make the floating frames of fish cages makes its way into the sea. Now, what happens after the waste is contaminated in the marine environment?

Impacts on marine life

The most visible impacts of the contamination of the marine environment by plastic debris are ingestion, suffocation, and entanglement of hundreds of marine species. Wildlife species like seabirds, whales, fish, and turtles often mistake plastic waste for prey and ingest them. This does not stop here, this plastic waste fills the stomachs and creates an illusion of a full stomach, but in reality, they die of starvation. They are also cases of lacerations, infections, internal injuries, and reduced ability to swim. In 2010, a gray whale that died after stranding near Seattle was found with more than 20 plastic bags, a golf ball, and other plastic debris in its stomach. This is just one such instance. There are many more unreported or not discovered. Microplastics look similar to plankton, too, which is food for hundreds of species at the base of the food chain, meaning plastic infiltrates entire ecosystems. Researchers have even discovered that organisms as tiny as the polyps in corals regularly consume microplastics. Furthermore, plastics absorb pollutants floating around in the ocean and contain harmful chemicals. Research suggests that when animals consume these toxin-infused particles, it could damage their organs, make them more susceptible to disease, and alter their reproduction. But how does this affect human beings?

Human Health Implications

When marine animals consume plastic, the toxins it contains break down inside their bodies. So when humans eat seafood, we’re consuming these, too. Some of these plastic toxins are linked to hormonal abnormalities and developmental problems. This process is also known as bioaccumulation. The study Microplastics in Seafood and the Implications for human health by Rochman (2013) stated that microplastics had been found in tap water, beer, and salt and are present in all samples collected in the world’s oceans, including the Arctic. When ingested, these pose a serious threat to human beings. ( as mentioned in the previous blog), studies have shown that excessive ingestion of plastic particles can also lead to cancer.