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Ways That Plastic Gets Into the Ocean

January 01st, 2020
by:Murat Suner
tags:environment, ocean pollution, plastic

Scientists estimate that 12.8 million metric tons of plastic waste are currently floating in our oceans.

How Does Plastic Get Into the Ocean

80% of the plastics that enter the oceans every year come from land-based activities and not from what is thrown or lost overboard from ships. Part of the marine litter comes from fishing nets, gear and other materials accidentally lost at sea, which only amounts to a small percentage of the total waste found in the sea. We all know and can see how our oceans and coastlines are choking on plastic waste. It has become the norm to see disturbing images or pictures of a beached whale circulating throughout the media, whose stomach or body is strapped with plastic bags. We also see pictures of sea turtles whose necks or other parts of the body are wrapped in plastic rings of soda cans. About 90 percent of all the plastic waste that reaches the world's oceans gets flushed through the rivers, littering, windblown waste, industrial waste, and municipal waste. Once the plastic gets into the sea, it decomposes very slowly. Plastic breaks down into tiny microplastics that damages sea life. But, how does plastic get into the ocean?

Direct Littering or Dumping Into Ocean

Littering and directly dumping garbage into oceans, riverbeds, and beaches is still a widespread practice across the globe. Rain or stormwater and wind can carry the plastic waste into the sea or into drains that lead to the sea. Illegal dumping of trash is a significant contributor. Also, there is careless and improper waste disposal along the beaches due to a lack of proper waste management systems leading to direct or indirect dumping of plastic waste into the oceans. Litter dropped anywhere doesn't stay there, but finds its way to the sea where it significantly adds to the plastic sea surge. Even if you live a thousand miles from the sea, the plastic waste you throw away could find its way into the ocean. Litter can be blown into rivers and streams, which carry it into the sea. Trash that blows in from the streets or trash cans also end up in waterways, sewers, or directly into the sea. A lack of proper waste management systems results in dropped plastic waste on the streets that eventually get carried away by wind or stormwater into drainage networks that then flow into the sea. It is a common practice by most holidaymakers visiting coastal beaches to leave behind plastic water bottles and plastic food packaging bags on the sand, which directly get into the ocean.

Our Windblown Plastic Rubbish

The amount of household plastic waste generated in the past few years is astonishing. And, out of it, only 9% of this waste is recycled. It implies that a majority of trash is dumped, burnt, or thrown to the environment. However, plastics thrown in the bins are collected and disposed of at landfill sites. Sometimes, during transportation, light plastic can be at risk of being blown out by the wind escaping into the environment. Windblown plastic eventually clutters around drains where stormwater carries them into the rivers and then to the ocean. Plastic is so lightweight and is blown away easily. Even after dumping in landfill sites, plastic is at risk of getting blown away by the wind. It can also exit through storm drains and end up in nearby rivers and finally to the sea. Plastics like LDPE type and packaging bags are very light and are easily blown by the wind. Once they hit the water, these types of plastic sink quickly due to their large surface area.

Products That Go Down the Drain

Many of the personal care and cosmetic products we use daily contain microbeads – very tiny plastics. Products like toothpaste, wet wipes, shower gels, face scrubs, and sanitary items that we use in our daily life get down the toilets into the ecosystem. Wastewater from the municipalities contains microplastics ranging from microbeads in our toothpaste to synthetic fibers shed in the washing machines while washing our clothing. Many water municipalities cannot detect microplastics and threads, and that means they pass through the treatment processes and directly get into rivers and finally into the oceans. Also, agricultural runoff contains microplastics found upstream from treatment plants, mainly where municipal sewage sludge is applied to agricultural land as fertilizer. The storm runoff water contains plastics from sewage, thus having an impact on the river system, which then flows into the ocean, posing a considerable risk by microplastics entering the oceans.

Industrial Leakage

When the disposal of products containing plastics from industrial processes is not up to standard, they are then responsible for plastics leaking into the environment. Leakage can come during the production stage or during the transportation of the product. For instance, a count conducted in February 2019 show that thousands of tiny industrial plastic pellets find their way onto the UK coastlines polluting nearly three-quarters of their coastal beaches every year. While plastics get into the ocean, they flow on currents all across the world, contaminating even uninhabited islands.

The Bottom Line

How does plastic get into the ocean? General littering, poor waste management, and industrial activity can all allow these wastes to enter the natural environment. Littering is particularly common in countries where waste infrastructure is lacking. An estimated two billion people worldwide don't have access to solid waste collection. So, the bottom line lies with us. Whether intentional or not, the plastic we litter around always has a chance that it could make its way into the sea. To end ocean plastics, we need to address the problem from the source. Corporations should reduce the amount of single-use plastic they sell. By doing so, it could reduce the amount of light plastic thrown away. Governments should also improve their waste management systems and boost plastic recycling. Marine life cannot stomach any more plastic, and we need to take some actions that will address our big question.

Article written by:
murat sw portrait
Murat Suner
Co-founder, Editorial Board Member, Author
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80% of the plastics that enter the oceans every year come from land-based activities.
It has become the norm to see disturbing images or pictures of a beached whale circulating throughout the media, whose stomach or body is strapped with plastic bags.
Products like toothpaste, wet wipes, shower gels, face scrubs, and sanitary items that we use in our daily life get down the toilets into the ecosystem.
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