How Does Plastic Get into the Ocean? And How Do We Stop It in Its Tracks?

by | Oct 30, 2020

Single-use plastics are some of the LVPs of our time. From disruption of food chains to destruction of entire marine ecosystems, ocean plastics are a problem that we are ready to face. So where to start? Well, how does plastic get into the ocean in the first place?

If you aren’t quite equipped with that answer, you’ve come to the right place. For a material that sticks around long after we are done with it, we want to know exactly how it’s passing through our communities and into our oceans. 

Armed with this information, we are ready to join the environmentally friendly companies, organizations, and people working every day to stop the plastic pollution we have all become too familiar with and save our oceans!

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The Problem with Plastic

As always, the first step towards solving the problem is to fully understand the issue and how it’s created. 

A good place to start here, is to understand why plastic is so dang attractive. Why can humans just not seem to get enough of the material despite the damage we all know it does?

When did it become the norm to wrap almost every item—from food to your toothpaste—in material that will take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to decompose?

Simply put, plastic is a super versatile, lightweight, flexible yet strong, moisture-resistant, relatively cheap material. The same characteristics that make it exceptionally durable make it painfully slow to degrade. No matter how small the pieces, they will never be absorbed by the environment or changed by natural processes.

During the 1960s and 70s, plastic really gained popularity, and the plastic bag made its debut, revolutionizing the way we consume.

Great Pacific Garbage Patche

So, What is the Real Cost of this Plastic Revolution?

A study conducted in 2015 estimated that out of the 6,300 million metric tons of plastic generated since the end of World War II, only 9% has been truly recycled.

So where does the other 91% end up? Well, the rest has either been incinerated (12%) or is still sitting in landfills or our natural environment (accounting for a staggering 79%).

And when we say “our natural environment,” we mean the oceans primarily. In fact, it is estimated that approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic get into the ocean every single year. Plastic pollution has reached all four corners of the world, even the most untouched and remote areas like the Cocos Islands and the Arctic. 

In 1997, Captain Charles Moore, a Californian surfer, sailor, and researcher, veered off his usual sea route to an area located right at the North Pacific ocean’s edge. In this particular location, Captain Moore discovered what is called today the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GGP).

He realized that tons and tons of plastic debris had been carried by the North Pacific gyre—one the world’s major five rotating ocean currents—and had ended up floating in this windless part of the sea and forgotten. 

Plastic in the oceanRight now, the GGP, which is essentially a floating landfill, covers an area that is three times the size of Texas and is made up of tons of discarded fishing gear, products from dropped shipping containers, many, many microplastics, and all sorts of non-biodegradable plastic waste. 

And more garbage patches are popping up that we’re not even aware of. 

Of course, plastic waste in the ocean impacts everything from the marine species that keep our oceans vibrant to our economy, to climate change. So, now that we’ve considered a little bit about the destination, we will get to the question of how it gets there?

5 Ways Plastic Finds Its Way into the Ocean

Have you ever joined a beach cleanup and found things that just really don’t belong: plastic bottles, toothbrushes, shoes, bags. How do these even get there? Are people just taking their home on the road and throwing everything out the window as they go?

The more you research this issue, the more it appears the ocean has been turned into the planet’s ultimate waste bin. 

Ocean plastic debris does not always get there as a direct result of waste dumping (though in some cases it does—more on that later). Even when you’re super strict with your recycling routine, you might be surprised to find out that the plastic products you carefully separated still end up in our seas. 

Don’t despair! There are a few different routes plastic usually takes to find its way into our oceans, and after our review, we’ll be able to cut off it’s journey no matter which path it’s taking.

1. Ocean-Based Industry Litter

You’d think that those who live off the sea would be the ones taking the most care. 

Unfortunately, even our ocean-loving and sea-dependent friends are not immune to the litter bug.

A huge chunk of marine debris is made up of dumped fishing gear and waste from ships and boat platforms. This comes with enormous consequences for the marine environment and all sea life that call the ocean home. 

We can see the effects of industry littering in the GGP and on our coasts. Sea turtles, seabirds, and other ocean dwellers get tangled in discarded lines and abandoned fishing nets, resulting in “ghost fishing.” When rescued or recovered, much of the marine life shows they’ve ingested a dangerous amount of plastics as well.

Actions Taken to Lessen the Impact of Marine Litter

Luckily, fishermen worldwide are realizing the importance of their role in the preservation of healthy seas and, in turn, healthy fish. In Greece, a few eco-conscious fishermen piloted a program to pay other fishermen a monthly fee when they recycle the waste they find in their nets, instead of dumping it back into the sea. 

In the first two and a half months, they collected over 11,000 pounds, and the hope that two years from now, they’ll be removing 20,000 pounds of waste from the ocean each month.

Kerala-fishermen-ocean-pollution-1In India, Kerala fishermen collect marine debris and work with local government agencies to develop the first proper sorting and recycling facilities. This isn’t just about saving the coastal animal life—the ocean is their livelihood, and as in many countries around the world, substantial portions of the economy depend on ocean health.

These Indian fishermen, along with a team of dedicated women who sort and separate the recovered waste, recycle what is possible, and for those items that are too damaged to be reused, they are “shred into a fine confetti and sold to local construction crews who use it to strengthen asphalt for paving roads.”

2. Everyday Littering (Obviously!)

My dad does this “joke” where he finishes a drink and then punctuates the delicious refreshment by throwing the can or cup over his shoulder as he walks away. He always picks it up, but the man loves a good shock effect. 

And the reality is that, while it is unsettling to see someone throw trash on the ground (cool, good one, dad), it isn’t uncommon behavior…the littering, not the joke.

But how many times have you set down your towel to enjoy some rest and relaxation at your local beach or water source, only to find yourself surrounded by bottle caps, cigarette butts, and food wrappers? Delicious.

Plastic bags, single-use cutlery, water bottles, cans, and six-pack rings are not so uncommon findings after being tossed or left behind by humans. And after they are left behind, they are easily transported into our water systems by shifting tides and winds.

Apart from the fact that it’s an actual eyesore to see things floating about when you want to go for a swim, these plastic products also harm the marine environment, which again, we really need to keep healthy for our own survival! 

Action Taken to Minimize the Effects of Littering

When you’re out and about, always pick up your trash and follow Take3 organization’s advice: “Take 3 pieces of rubbish with you when you come from the beach, waterway… or anywhere, and you have made a difference.” Always leave no trace, and better yet, leave it better than you found it.

Thankfully, street and beach cleanups are becoming more and more popular everywhere. Local nonprofits often host open events you can join for a morning or afternoon. If you’re not finding one to join, you can always start your own nonprofit or group! 

It’s a great way to meet more like-minded members of your community and educate people about the plastic problem through mindful action. Plus, it’s a socially distant activity that gets you outside and working collectively.

Child picking up litter

3. Poor Waste Management

According to the global waste index, the United States is “the biggest generator of waste per capita worldwide, with each citizen producing an average of 808 kilograms per year.” That’s over 1,700 pounds! And given the fact it’s more than double the annual waste of a citizen of Japan, it’s unnecessary and avoidable.

Where does most of this trash end up, you might ask?

The U.S government ships containers filled with plastic waste to other countries, particularly in Asia, that struggle with poor waste management situations. To worsen matters, in some of these countries, waste collection simply does not exist. 

In fact, in the top five plastic-polluting nations (China, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand), more than 2 billion people have to create their own waste disposal systems. This usually means either incineration or the most popular option: open landfills.

Open landfills not only leak harmful chemicals into the earth’s watershed, but they also allow plastic waste to be carried away by winds and rainwater. 

And get this: 38 of the 50 largest uncontrolled landfills in the world are located in coastal areas that spill straight into the sea. With climate change and rising sea levels, it is becoming even harder to avoid plastic traveling into the world’s oceans.

Poor sewage conditions also lead to spillages into rivers and other bodies of water. Materials can bypass treatment systems and enter waterways when rain levels rise and exceed the facility’s handling capacity. 

You may be surprised to learn that 10 of the world’s major rivers alone carry an estimated 1.15-2.41 million tons of plastic into the sea every year, the equivalent of 100,000 dump trucks!

Poorly managed plastic debris can also affect the health of communities, as plastic waste often collects water, allowing disease-bearing mosquitoes to breed.

Tourism is another sector negatively impacted by inadequate waste management, as no one wants to sunbathe next to old straws and swim among a sea of plastic bags.

Action to reduce plastic waste before it gets to oceans

Our friends at Preserve are committed to reducing ocean plastics through their Preserve Ocean Plastics Initiative (POPI) where they create products out of plastic rescued from coastlines and waterways. One of their POPI partners is nonprofit organization Renew Oceans

Renew Oceans takes a comprehensive approach to plastic waste reduction. Since “clean oceans begin with clean rivers” the nonprofit builds fencing in rivers that catches waste before it makes its way out to sea, creates recycling programs where none exist, and incentivizes participation in recycling and waste management to support local communities in making an impact.

4. Companies Dumping Plastic Directly into the Water

Can you believe people would do such a thing?

It may sound crazy, but unfortunately it’s real and perhaps even more common than you think. In 2019, a group of local Texans who had been tracking plastic pollution in their local bar took their complaint to the courts. The judge ruled that Formosa Plastics—a petrochemical manufacturer—was guilty of illegally dumping billions of plastic pellets and other pollutants directly into Lavaca Bay, Texas. 

Formosa agreed to the largest Clean Water Act settlement in history: they agreed to pay $50 million and to clean up existing plastic pollution they’d caused, and to zero-waste discharge in the future. Big win for the good guys! 

An interesting fact about this kind of lawsuit is that the $50 million doesn’t go to the plaintiffs. Instead, it will all go to efforts and organizations to improve the environmental status of the polluted area previously damaged.

Not all polluters are brought to justice like they were in this Texas case despite there being many companies out there doing the same. If you do have a similar situation in your community, take action and write letters to your local council or your regional representatives and demand change and stricter laws to ban these practices.

5. Microbeads and Microplastics

Who would have thought that something so small could create such a big problem?

The micro trifecta is, at the moment, one of the biggest challenges we face in terms of plastic pollution. 

Unlike plastic bags or large containers that can be easily seen and collected, microplastics are such tiny pieces of plastic that they’re invisible to the naked eye. And they can’t generally be scooped out of the ocean.

Fish microplastics cycle gifBesides ending up in the seas and being swallowed by all sorts of marine life, microplastics are highly absorbent, especially when it comes to harmful toxins and chemicals. These nanoparticles then get into the bodies of marine animals and accumulate in their fat cells, resulting in damaged tissues and irregular organ function. Plastics affect humans in the same way. Needless to say, none of this bodes well for our health either. 

So how do these types of plastic end in the ocean?

In many different ways. 

They might have been larger plastic items that broke down due to prolonged sun exposure (making plastic easier to break). 

But they could also be an ingredient in your daily facial exfoliant or everyday toothpaste (microbeads). 

Or they may be released when you use your washing machine to wash your clothes (which are often made with synthetic and plastic-based fibers).

Yup, microplastics are a real threat because they seem to be in all sorts of things you use on a day-to-day basis. 

The good news is that due to public demand, microbeads have been banned from cosmetics and other products in the United States and several other countries. Your voice was heard and now you can enjoy your body scrub with peace of mind.

Luckily, there are also plenty of eco-minded clothing companies that are now creating sustainable clothes and sportswear that are equally breathable, fashionable, but won’t harm our beloved oceans’ health.

How Can You Help Solve the Plastic Problem?

Phewwww! So now that we’ve delved deeper into the root of the plastic problem, it’s time to see how you can make a positive impact with your personal action!

At this point, the best approach to save our oceans, our planet, and our species is… prevention!

So what does that mean?

That means that the most effective way to stop producing plastic trash, well… is to stop consuming plastic in the first place. Yes, it sounds like an almost daunting task, but the best way is to start small and incorporate easy changes into your life.

A few tips to get started: take a room-by-room approach. Start by building a plastic-free, zero waste bathroom, then take that to the kitchen, and so on. Replace those single-use plastic products with things like eco-friendly toothbrushes, and low-waste cleaning supplies.

If you need a hand with how to go plastic-free, we have a lot of tips you can use to get you well on your way! In the end, it’s about your own awareness as you go through the day. Each time you encounter a not so earth-friendly product, think about whether you can opt for a plastic alternative.

The Change is Coming. And It Starts with You.

Thanks to higher awareness around the world, ocean conservancy has been under the spotlight for the last few years. 

This means more resources are being put into thoroughly investigating the size of the plastic problem to try to come up with solutions. 

From sustainable products, to plastic-eating bacteria, and technology that prevents plastic waste from traveling from rivers to the oceans, there seems to be an increasingly brighter light at the end of the tunnel. Innovative environmentally friendly companies and conscious consumers are joining together to create a more circular economy, where little is wasted.

Plastic pollution affects every single environment and organism on our planet: oceans, beaches, seafloors, coastlines, animals, and ultimately humans. So it’s up to you, to all of us, to do our small part to make the big change Mother Earth desperately needs.

When there is a will, there is always a more sustainable and plastic-free way!

Telma Goncalves

Telma Goncalves


Telma is a Portuguese journalist and freelance writer who currently lives in the sunny and wild Mediterranean island of Mallorca. In her free time, you can find her reading, writing, volunteering, traveling, chasing cats, and eating pints of salted caramel ice cream.


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