5 Startling Facts About Ocean Plastic Pollution and What We Can Do to Stop It

We’ve all heard the news: Plastic pollution in our oceans is at catastrophic levels. Plastic pollution endangers the health of our oceans, marine life and humans alike. While some of the behaviors that affect ocean pollution are obvious, others are less so. The good news is that by educating ourselves, adapting what we buy (or don’t buy), and better managing our trash, we can all help prevent plastic from entering the ocean, whether we live on the coast, a river, or far inland. Learn more about the problem as well as promising solutions and how together we can clean up our oceans.

1.150 Million Metric Tons of Plastic are in the Ocean, and 8 Million More Tons are Added Every Year[1].

Numbers on plastic in the ocean are often estimates, but considering 50% of the plastic produced around the globe each year is single-use plastic, it follows that much of what enters our oceans is also single use[2]. Many single use plastics are not readily accepted in municipal recycling operations. As well, single-use plastics are the often the lightest weight plastics (including straws, plastic bottles and plastic bags), meaning they’re much more likely to be blown to areas where they can head to the ocean. Personal choices to avoid single-use plastics, corporate commitments to reduce packaging, and government regulation all play a role in the reduction of plastic items that can make their way to the ocean. For one creative small step, watch the #stopsucking campaign by Lonely Whale.

2. 93% of Ocean Plastic Pollution from Rivers Comes from 10 Major Riverways Alone[3]

This means efforts on land to stop the flow of plastic to the ocean are critical. Lightweight trash (often single-use plastics) such as plastic bags, straws and caps, can make their way into gutters and ultimately flow to the sea. It is estimated that more than a quarter of plastic entering the ocean comes from rivers[4], and of the plastic entering from rivers, up to 93% of it comes from 10 major riverways alone.[5]  While these plastic pollution facts are staggering, they also mean that concentrated regional efforts can have outsized impacts. Renew Oceans, Preserve’s partner for the Preserve Ocean Plastics Initiative (POPi), works in coastal and riverside locations to build deep engagement with local communities and bring innovative technologies to capture plastics from rivers and renew them into fuels. Renew Oceans partners with local leaders to empower waste collection, installs kiosks for easy recycling, and compensates plastic collection with rewards. Read more about Renew Oceans.

3. 1 in 3 Sea Mammals Have Been Entangled in Marine Litter[6].

While heartbreaking images of whales entangled in plastic abound, the plastic issue reaches far beyond what is commonly seen. In 2018, Irish researchers found that over 73% of deep water fish from the North Atlantic had ingested plastic in some format, much of it microplastic.[7] Many of these microplastics have absorbed persistent organic pollutants (POPs) which, when ingested by sea life, build up toxins through the food chain in a process called bioaccumulation. Beyond the risk of animal ingestion, plastics can also have a chemical reaction in the water causing ocean oxygen levels to drop. While there isn’t one magic solution to help marine animals affected by ocean plastic pollution, many steps can help. These include avoiding single-use plastics, supporting legislation to better manage recycling, and, for those who choose to eat seafood, supporting operations that fish sustainably. Learn more about selecting better seafood via Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.

4. In 2018, 1 Million Volunteers in 22 Countries Collected Plastic Pollution on More than 22,000 Miles of Coastline.

In 2018, cigarette butts, food wrappers, plastic bottles and bottle caps, plastic bags, plastic beverage lids, straws, stirrers, and take-out containers were some of the most common forms of trash found on beaches. While these items were found on coastlines and not in the water, we know that these items frequently enter the oceans as well, joined by ocean-generated trash such as fishing nets and lines. The data on items found on beaches is generated by an amazing feat of citizen science: The International Coastal Cleanup in partnership with Ocean Conservancy, which takes place around the world every September and October. Participants focus on cleaning up coastlines to prevent trash from entering the ocean and to gather information. In 2018, more than 1 million volunteers covered more than 22,000 miles of coastline in 22 countries.[8] Want to get involved? Find volunteer opportunities. 

5. People are Taking Action to Address Ocean Plastic – at All Levels and All Around the World

While ocean plastic pollution remains one of the Earth’s great challenges, vibrant organizations are leading the way to find solutions by tackling the problem through research, prevention, education, and cleanup. From working to identify the top creators of plastics that ultimately end up in the ocean, to researching the effects of plastic on sea life, to organizing local communities around cleanups, there is momentum to address ocean plastic like never before. Preserve created the Preserve Ocean Plastic Initiative (POPi) because we believe that through our small steps, together with the very big ones undertaken by our partners 5 Gyres, Renew Oceans, and many others, solutions are within our reach.  

[1]https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/plastics-in-the-ocean/

[2]https://plasticoceans.org/the-facts/

[3]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29019247

[4]https://theoceancleanup.com/updates/quantifying-global-plastic-inputs-from-rivers-into-oceans/

[5]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29019247

[6]https://plasticoceans.org/the-facts/

[7]https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2018.00039/full

[8]https://oceanconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Final-2019-ICC-Report.pdf

Ocean plastic pollution POPi