Sewage, garbage dumping and industrial and agricultural runoff can cause severe damage to ocean environments. Plastic, however — one of the most common and least biodegradable methods of packaging — is the biggest threat. It doesn’t break down and can harm wildlife at any size. We’re on track to have more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.
Right now, we have a chance to turn the tide. Better waste management techniques and standards can help reduce the amount of plastic waste in our oceans and reverse environmental damage.
How Plastic Waste Threatens Our Oceans
About 8 million tons of plastic material enters the ocean every year — that’s five plastic bags’ worth of waste on every foot of shoreline around the world. We produce and use a lot of plastic. When not properly disposed of, that plastic can easily reach the sea. There, with no real way to leave the ocean, it builds up — on the seafloor, in masses like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the digestive systems of marine wildlife.
Plastics pose a threat to animals. Sometimes, this plastic is in the form of large pieces, like bottle caps and plastic six-pack rings. However, much is in the form of microplastics — fragments no more than 5 millimeters long.
Big pieces of plastic can snare fish, birds and other marine wildlife. Microplastics can be ingested, causing harm to animals’ digestive systems as they build up over time and release toxic chemicals.
The present situation isn’t great — ocean plastic rises every year, and there have been few signs the trend will reverse without international effort. Yet there are waste management strategies people can adopt to reduce ocean plastic.
New Waste Management Strategies
Some waste management measures have already proven popular, like the banning of single-use plastics. In 2018, Seattle became the largest city in the U.S. to ban plastic straws. Major corporations like Starbucks plan to phase out plastics within the next few years. Plastic straw bans demonstrate how public pressure can change waste management strategies. However, straws themselves don’t account for much of the global plastic use — they make up less than 1%.
Effective management of plastic will require significant commitments from both individuals and organizations.
Private entities have options if they want to limit the amount of waste they produce and prevent it from becoming sea-borne. There are also waste management services to help boaters reduce marine waste.
Individuals can help reduce ocean plastic by changing what they buy and use. About 80 percent of plastic waste comes from on-land activities. Cutting your use can make a massive difference in the amount of plastic that makes it to the ocean.
Some of the power for change rests with packaging producers and distributors. Much of the time, consumers don’t have a say in what kind of packaging the products they buy comes in. Producers can make a difference by pledging to reduce the amount of plastic they use, and also by offering biodegradable and non-plastic packaging options.
International organizations like the UN have adopted goals and policies that will lead to zero ocean plastic. Surveillance, research and better mapping can uphold these standards. These tactics can also be used to identify bad actors trying to avoid compliance with ocean-saving standards.
Individuals can fund public works projects, NGO’s and environmental non-profits. Around the world, there are numerous ocean clean-up operations underway. However, they’re often tight on funding or lack the workforce needed to turn the tide. With the proper financial backing — and maybe some volunteer workers — these organizations can reduce the amount of plastic present in our oceans.
Cleaning up Our Oceans
Plastic is a major threat to the health of our oceans. Without proper care, the number of plastics in the oceans will only grow over time. Yet there’s no reason to believe current predictions are inevitable. With better waste management technology and policy, we can reverse the damage and save our oceans.