The topic of plastic pollution in our oceans is nothing new.
Plastic sitting in landfills for hundreds of years, or even just days, is not biodegradable and can remain intact for centuries while spilling its contents into the surrounding soil. When groundwater comes in contact with this contaminated soil it can infiltrate directly back into natural bodies of water within the ground, contaminating them as well (EPA). Although some plastics are degradable under specific conditions, most take thousands of years (like the 500 currently used in packaging) to break down at which point they will simply fragment into tiny particles that permeate soils and water systems.
Especially concerning marine debris is that more than half of it originates on land (our own coastlines) and 80-90% of the debris found in oceans was at one time discarded on land or within lakes, rivers, reservoirs, or coastal areas (UNESCO).
These stats are exactly why so many researchers have looked into the issue to discover what is really happening. The results can be staggering.
According to an infographic by CLEAN MACHINES, plastics production has increased over 200 times since 1950. That’s right- two hundred times! And this doesn’t even include bags, wraps, utensils, stirrers, etc. that aren’t made out of plastic but do contain plastic additives like phthalates and Bisphenol A (BPA).
But how does this new production affect the environment?
According to a recent article in Science Advances, 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans annually and will continue to do so for the next few centuries. This is equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline around the world. And these rates are only expected to increase as global populations grow.
The problem doesn’t end at our water’s edge either- one of the most startling discoveries about marine debris is that it has been found everywhere on Earth. It has even reached remote areas such as the deepest depths of the ocean and Antarctic ice shelves.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or “Trash Vortex” as it is sometimes called, is a massive area where ocean currents have collected floating debris from the west coast of North America and Asia. It spans from about 100 to 600 feet below the surface, or from California to Japan (Marine Debris).
Plastic pollution in our oceans has reached critical levels and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Although recycling can help reduce plastic’s presence on the land, how we dispose of plastics off-shore is just as important if not more important. A simple solution would be looking into biodegradable plastics that don’t take millennia to break down but instead only a year or less depending on environmental conditions such as sunlight and oxygen availability.
Until then, we must focus on getting the message out about how much plastic is already polluting our oceans and what can be done to reduce the problem.