Trash and plastic waste is unfortunately everywhere in our ocean. From our coasts to the Arctic, to the deepest part of the ocean, marine debris is a growing, global problem. Without concerted efforts to combat marine debris now, the volume of plastic waste entering our ocean will only grow.
Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enter our ocean each year. Most of that is trash that is never collected, but instead is thrown into city streets or rural areas, or even directly into our rivers and seas. Clearly, the lack of effective waste management is one of the greatest challenges we face in tackling this global issue. Our research in 2015 revealed that if key countries in Asia Pacific improve their waste management, we could halve the flow of plastic into our ocean by 2025. Good waste management—including effectively picking up and sorting trash—is also essential for a future in which waste can be recovered and repurposed. Effective waste management can also deliver public health, economic development and climate benefits. But, what can we do to ensure this becomes reality?
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Walk along a beach or waterway and you’re apt to see a food wrapper floating on the water or glimpse a beverage bottle made of plastic hovering near the shore. Read an article about the ocean gyres, the so-called “garbage patches,” and you’re likely to hear about the vast amounts of plastics that are polluting the seas.
Three years ago, researchers at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) set out to quantify – for the first time – the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean from land-based sources. Their research shows staggering results – with annual plastics inputs into the ocean exceeding 4.8 million tonnes and possibly as high as 12.7 million tonnes (approx. 11-26 billion pounds). Because the quantities are growing rapidly due to increases both in population and in plastics use, there may be as much as 250 million tons (550 billion pounds) of plastic in the ocean within another decade. These findings were published today in the February issue of Science and provide more in-depth information about what is happening with plastics in the ocean.
Once plastics enter the marine environment they disperse across our global ocean. There is no one single entry point for ocean plastic pollution. In fact, the global problem is comprised of a myriad of local inputs from beaches and waterways around the world. But the recent research shows that the largest amounts of plastic in the ocean come from a relatively small number of rapidly developing economies. In fact, 83 percent of the plastic waste that is available to enter the ocean comes from just 20 countries; chief among them are China, Indonesia, and the Philippines with the United States rounding out the top 20. The economies where plastic inputs are greatest are those where population growth and plastics consumption is severely outpacing waste management capacity. In many of these geographies waste collection is simply nonexistent.
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