We’re all well aware of the plastic problem, we’ve all seen the images of bottles floating around and the horrors of the great pacific garbage patch. But something that often goes unspoken about is the journey our plastic takes to get there. According to a 2017 study, 90% of all ocean plastic comes from 10 major rivers across the globe.
So, what exactly happens to our plastic bottle, plastic bag or plastic cutlery once we dispose of it and how does it become a problem for our ocean?
The beginning –
The cycle begins with the manufacturing and purchasing of the plastic – whilst we’d love to tell everyone to just not buy plastic, we know this isn’t the reasonable answer! The main problem kicks in when we look at uncollected waste and littered waste.
Uncollected waste from homes and industrial areas can leak into waterways such as rivers and travel in to the ocean. Worldwide about 37% of waste that is collected goes to landfills, but plastic waste can leak into the surrounding areas and local waterways.
Plastic can also reach our ocean simply by being left on the floor, especially in places close to the ocean. For example, Indonesia lacks drinking water meaning plastic drinking bottles are extremely common. If these aren’t collected, their final destination will become the ocean.
The middle –
As soon as plastic reaches the ocean, it becomes unusable as it begins the process of breaking down. This is a slow process which causes things called microplastics to be released in to our waterways. Microplastics are toxic to sea life and animals and are the biggest problem we currently face in terms of plastic pollution as they are near impossible to rid of from our ocean once the process starts. This is why stopping the plastic from getting there in the first place is so important.
Research on the journey of microplastics into the ocean is still developing. One study found that over 700,000 plastic fibres are released from a 6kg wash of synthetic clothing. There are about 3m microplastic particles in one bottle of face scrub, and even in countries with efficient wastewater-treatment plants a small percentage of particles still leaks into the marine environment.
The final result –
Researches have been finding these microplastics in all kinds of animals, from tiny shellfish to birds and whales. Their size is the most harmful factor. Smaller animals lower down on the food chain eat them, and when larger animals feed on the small animals, they can end up also consuming large amounts of plastic.
If ingested, microplastics can block the stomachs of animals, or trick them into thinking they don't need to eat, leading to starvation. Many toxic chemicals can also stick to to the surface of plastic and, if eaten, contaminated microplastics could expose animals to high concentrations of toxins.
Microplastics are even becoming a problem on land, and have for the first time been found in human blood. The effects here on land are, at the moment, less unknown but given the impact they can have on marine life, there’s a high possibility that they’re not something we want to have infiltrating our lives either.
The journey of plastic can also go in a far better direction which is of course to a recycling centre, but unfortunately at the moment only around 9% of plastic produced is actually recycled. The important thing here is to stop plastic reaching the point of contamination all together. By choosing to reuse and refill plastics we already have, and saying no to plastic we do not need – we can all do our part to ensure our own personal plastics don’t have an impact on our waters.
Small changes, save oceans!