The Five Myths (and Truths) About Plastic Pollution in Our Ocean

Photo by John Kieser

As the Director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Program, I’ve had the opportunity to meet people who care about the ocean and are making a difference for the communities that depend on it. However, I’m always surprised by the number of misconceptions about ocean plastics.

With many people visiting the beach this summer, not to mention all the coverage that ocean plastics has received recently, it’s a great opportunity to clear up some of these myths:

  1. Myth: There are floating islands of plastics in every ocean.
    Fact: Only a small percentage of ocean plastics float at the sea surface.Most plastics are dispersed throughout the water column, resting on the seafloor, trapped in Arctic ice, or inside ocean animals. The plastic gyres you hear about in the news are primarily composed of tiny plastic particles that are the degraded fragments of their original form (i.e., bottles, containers, toys)—many are the size of a grain of rice. 
  2. Myth: Ocean plastic primarily comes from ocean dumping and industry, such as cruise ships or container ships. .
    Fact: Most of the plastics in the ocean come from items we use every day—bags, bottles, caps, food containers, etc. By limiting single-use plastics in our everyday lives and disposing of these items properly, we can reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean. 
  3. Myth: Ocean trash gyres, large areas of the ocean where currents concentrate trash, can simply be cleaned out of existence.
    Fact: While some surface trash can be cleaned, many plastics break down and become dispersed. Only a small percentage of total ocean plastics inputs rest at the surface. The rest is distributed throughout the ocean or winds up inside animals. We don’t have a realistic, efficient way to remove these plastics from the system (yet).
  4. Myth: Ocean plastics are just a trash problem.
    Fact: Plastic particles are now found inside animals and throughout the ocean food chain—from mussels to fish to turtles to whales. 
  5. Myth: There is one, simple solution capable of solving our ocean plastics problem.
    Fact: Bans, fees, recycling nor product redesign alone can fix this. The ultimate solution is a combination of all of these and more. The biggest impact will come from stopping the massive amounts of plastic litter before it travels over land, and into our waterways and ocean.

With all this in mind, you might be thinking—what can I do to make a difference? You can sign up to clean your local beach or waterway by joining Ocean Conservancy in the International Coastal Cleanup on Saturday, September 20. You’ll be among hundreds of thousands of volunteers working towards a cleaner ocean.

Cleanups alone can’t solve this problem, but volunteers are instrumental in helping us assemble our Ocean Trash Index. This provides us with a snapshot of what’s trashing our ocean so we can work towards preventing the most abundant and problematic items of trash from reaching the water in the first place.

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  1. A saying I came up with a long time ago is this… “You put your wheelie bins out once a week; so does everyone else in the world.”
    That’s a lot of rubbish. I try to use as little as I can. I think one step people can take is instead of buying bottled water just get tap water for free and use a re-usable cup. And just keep making lots of little changes, to start with anyway.

  2. One fact to add to Myth 3…Almost all of the floating plastic in the gyres in the North Atlantic and North Pacific, even confetti sized, have marine life from biofilm to mussels living on them. Removing the plastic would mean removing all the organisms using the plastic as floating islands.

  3. We can think of hundreds of UNNECESSARY uses of plastic that can be stopped forever. We need to refuse to buy them, ever. We need to make sure that recycling is happening and that ALL plastic we use gets recycled. NOW.

  4. มนุษย์คือตัวทำลายธรรมชาติทั้งทางตรงและทางอ้อม

  5. I hope we one-day find a way to do without the use of plastics. I presume recycling isn’t working

  6. There’s a spot in the Pacific ocean called the “Sea of Trash” and the majority of it is bottles and other stuff that falls off container ships. Its two currents mixing together. Scientists want to study it because it shows a lot about currents, but I say why not just clean it up? Its pollution and hazards to birds, fish, and others.

  7. There are global rules on shipping, the discharge and even the loss of items. As a person who works at sea and is also an environmentalist, while I realise not shipping is good, it is governed and “other stuff that falls off container ships” is not accurate. Most is blown into the ocean from land. If a container is lost, and doesn’t sink, then yes it could be there, but it’s unlikely to be open and spilling as they dare built to withstand stresses of all kinds. I resent the image that is portrayed of seafarers as uncaring people who dump garbage. There are rules (MARPOL) and we follow them!

  8. You can’t recycle all plastics, and only a small percentage is. We should have all rubbish processed for recyclables. Plus the worst is the plastic linings on cartons and coffee cups, impossible to recycle at the moment.

  9. NICE, humanssssssssssss nice, good job, looking good, heading in the right direction!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. It is so disgusting yoi spend the entire day at the beach Having fun but can’t spend five minutes to pick the garbage you brong

  11. when I walk the beach I carry 1 bag for the interesting things I find, another for the trash I pick up. I am happy to report that the beach we use most often Bear Island, NC) is actually usually very clean).

  12. If we used a non plastic bottle to drink out of instead of buying plastic we would be able to keep so much of this out of our oceans!

  13. they are passing new laws ,finally’ to help part of this -people look’-but dont ‘-see”??

  14. NASA has linked El Nino to outbreaks of bartonellosis. Bartonella bacilliforms (1) produce L-form variants, mycoplasma that can live on plastic. Bartonella have bacteriophage, “1 1/2 decades ago,…detected …phages more abundant in the water columns of freshwater and marine habitats than previously thought..cause significant mortality of bacterioplankton. …release of lysis products by phages converts organic carbon from particulate (cells) todisolved forms (lysis products) which makes organic carbon more bioavailable and thus acts as a catalyst of geochemical nutrient cycles.” 
    References: 
    1. John T Sharp, Isolation of L-forms of Bartonella bacilliformis, Proc Soc Exp Bio Med Aug 1968, 128:1072-1075(No.4)

    2. Bacteriophage, from Genetics and Molecular Biology, edited by Stephen McGrath

  15. You have a major typographical error in your text “Fact: Bans, fees, recycling nor product redesign alone can fix this”.  CAN FIX is the typo.  You might want to fix that.

  16. I would like to know why if anyone or country as not tried to establish a international seagoing sanitation company formed to do nothing but clean.the oceans and beaches One where all countries are responsible and contribute to the beaches and ocean  cleanup. As we all know and are aware there are not just a few peices of plastic floating and beached but tons of ropes, fishing nets.it’s known fact that our fish are being full of plastic residue  as the gulls that travel thousands of miles that are dying from plastic ingestion and  as  the fish spreading there fecess that is now poisoning the ego system  they would have the power to enforce countries and firms and people to pay increased fines for those who violate example there are islands of trash floating at sea from Japans disaster and just left to the rest of the world to dispose lets make a firm that’s responsible along with Japan for the clean up.

  17. One fact most do not realize is that thousands of pounds of plastics enter our oceans daily from Wastewater Treatment Plants which to not have any effluent filtering. There is no EPA regulations for filtered effluent either!

  18. pjllewellyn There should be a “Neither” at the start of the sentence, that way it makes sense the way the author intended it to. Neither this nor that alone can fix this.

  19. I live in Great Falls Montana and people now they should recycle but just don’t care enough to do so. I have seen this in too many states across the nation. So far, the best reducers & recyclers live in Oregon. Curbside too! We should stop producing so much garbage in the first place but that would require people to quit buying so much shit & then throwing it in the trash!!

  20. glass containers work as do paper bags. If the people won’t convert, that’s when a responsible government comes into play. BTW, In Jersey for the past twenty years, seperate garbage cans have been the norm. The difference there is that they send out inspectors to look in your garabe cans and if you put the wrong items in them, they tag them and you have to pull out the bad and put in the good. If you do it more then twice, you get fined and if you continue, you get to take your garbage to the dump yourself.

  21. We still need an Ocean sanitation Dept., we can talk and talk but, even if we start, the most stringent program today our Oceans still would need to cleaned up and the amount they could do would only be a small amount but that would at least  be a start.

  22. johnthedean glad Jersey does that & holds people accountable. It’s just insane that we aren’t reducing & recycling our garbage more. In Pennsylvania, people are still burning all their waste in backyard barrels. Manufacturers need to be better responsible as well as consumers.

  23. gljksr runoff from yards, feedlots, farms, drain systems, dirty businesses, etc. It’s a cesspool out there. Until we hold companies and consumers accountable it won’t change. Educating people is not enough, they have to CARE.

  24. Jim Simmonds, look at all the fast food, coffee joints, and restaurant carry out packaging– garbage by the droves. Burgerville in Oregon uses all compostable materials and local ingredients, but sadly that is not the norm. Most businesses, when I try and get them to convert, tell me “it is not cost effective.” They won’t give up some of their profits until we make them by not supporting their businesses.

  25. AndrewTurner not everyone does follow the rules though. Just like land travelers throwing their trash out the window, or into the landfills, I have seen boaters throw stuff out too. Look at all the sunken ships, oil, barrels, fishing equipment, mercury littering the oceans. I appreciate that you are not one of the culprits land or sea.

  26. AndrewTurner Oregon recycles most all plastics including agriculture plastic. There is a company over there that uses it, can’t remember the name at the moment. They were even recycling Styrofoam for awhile. Virtually no garbage what so ever. I would like to see us REDUCE our shit vs recycling all this junk. We were able to survive without this “convenient crap” before.

  27. THIS IS VERY DISTURBING. IT’S TIME TO TAKE A GOOD HARD LOOK,OF WHAT’S HAPPENING TO OUR PLANET EARTH WHAT’S LEFT OF IT. IT BRING’S TEAR’S TO MY EYE’S.I KNOW I’LL GO ANY-WHERE NEEDED TO HELP OUT. I SURE HOPE WE WILL HAVE MANY,THOUSAND’S OF PEOPLE WHO WILL SHOW THEY CARE AND HELP OUT.BEFORE IT’S TO LATE.BLESS OUR DEAR PLANET EARTH. Theresa R.

  28. You’re right on top of it. I just do not understand why nothing is being done ,it’s not like the world is deaf and dumb.   It would be a wonderful thing if someone would invent a way to salvage the mess.

  29. THE LITTERING OF PLASTIC IS NOT A PROBLEMATIC BUT A CURABLE DISEASE.
    THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE LAW FOR PROPER SEGREGATION UNDER R.A. 9003 USING SENSIBLE AND PRACTICABLE APPLICATION SUCH AS BY USING TRANSPARENT TRASH BIN IS ONE OF THE EFFORTLESS SOLUTION.
    THE 76.2 PERCENT OF HOUSEHOLD TRASH DUMPED IN THE LANDFILL AREA COMPOSED OF UNSEGREGATED MATERIALS INCLUDING PLASTIC WILL BE OUT OF THE LANDFILL IF THOSE IDEAS WILL BE IMPLEMENTED.
    GARBAGE MANAGEMENT AT BARANGAY LEVEL AND MAKING TRASH BIN TRANSPARENT IS THE ULTIMATE SOLUTION TO GARBAGE PROBLEM.
    TRANSPARENT TRASH BAG HELPS THE THROWERS IDENTIFY WHICH TRASH BIN CONTAINING THE NON-BIODEGRADABLE AND BIODEGRADABLE TRASH. ANYONE CAN EASILY SHOOT GARBAGE TO THE CORRECT LOCATION IF THOSE CONTENTS ARE VISIBLE INSIDE THE TRASH BIN.
    MAKING THE CONTENT VISIBLE WILL GREATLY HELP GARBAGE SEGREGATION MORE EFFECTIVELY WHICH REQUIRING ONLY ONE-STEP MENTAL PROCESS FOR THE THROWERS TO SHOOT HIS GARBAGE TO THE CORRECT LOCATION, AS OPPOSED TO THE USUAL CLASSIFICATION WHERE ONE HAS TO DECIDE WHETHER THE WASTE ON ONE’S HAND IS BIODEGRADABLE, COMPOSTABLE, RECYCLABLE, OR RESIDUAL.
    USING MY NEWLY INVENTED ADJUSTABLE ECO TRASH BAG HOLDER, WHICH CAN ADOPT DIFFERENT SIZES OF TRASH BAG, WILL MAKE SEGREGATION BECOME MORE QUICKIER AND EASIER..

  30. Anything will help there just is  not enough of it.  This still isn’t doing anything to get our Ochans cleaned up now,.these require salvage crews of sort to remove the floating islands of plastic and should be internationally, Lord knows Japan has had its trouble, but a large portion of this mess it is theirs just seems to me there are a lot of Countries just sitting on the backside and pretending it does not exist and just watching it float by with a blind eye.We need a way to get them into action then just these blogs but send them to our congress instead of each other.