How does all the plastic get into the ocean?

June 19, 2018 6:29 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Our oceans are becoming choked with plastic. There are beaches littered with plastic, huge floating ‘islands’ of plastic in the Pacific and animals and seabirds starving to death after ingesting plastic waste. According to Greenpeace, some 12 million tonnes of plastic are entering our oceans every year – the equivalent of a rubbish truck every minute.

We take a look at how plastic actually gets into the oceans.

Can we keep our oceans free of plastic?     Image: Sebastian Voortman

But how exactly does all that plastic get into the sea? (It’s an important part of the debate – I recently attended a children’s group where there was a talk on plastic and recycling. The leader of the group admonished the children: ‘So – we don’t throw our plastic bags into the sea, do we?’ ‘No!’, chorused the children, rather bewildered, as they all lived a couple of hundred miles from the coast.) The problem clearly isn’t caused by people hurling plastic bags off piers: so how is it happening?

Well, there are a number of ways. Let’s take a look.

Industrial waste and loss

About 20% of the plastic in the ocean is made up of waste or ‘lost material’ from industries, sometimes dumped there illegally or through unsatisfactory disposal processes, sometimes lost at sea during mishaps in transport and handling. This includes material from the fishing industry.

Via rivers

Image: Allen Watkin

Even people who live hundreds of miles from the sea have a direct connection to it. This is a country criss-crossed by streams, which feed into larger rivers, which drain into our seas. Every crisp packet that inadvertently finds its way into a drain, stream, pond or lake, has the potential to become a traveller all the way out to sea.

And while we don’t tend to throw our crisp packets directly into streams either in this country, they can nevertheless easily find their way there, as litter is blown and washed by rain along our streets, into drains. Plastic litter also blows off rubbish-collection lorries, into the surrounding countryside, or is blown away from landfill sites, into waterways.

This isn’t a small problem. As Greenpeace say:

‘Major rivers around the world carry an estimated 1.15-2.41 million tons of plastic into the sea every year – that’s up to 100,000 rubbish trucks.’

From microplastics

Microplastics – tiny microbeads of plastic that escape the wastewater filters – find their way easily into the oceans. Microbeads are now banned in many countries, including the UK.

Plastic fibres

Wipes, sanitary products – even cotton buds – are flushed down our toilets, and their plastic elements once again enter waterways. Greenpeace point out that plastic fibres can be washed off clothing in washing machines too, entering our drains.

What can we do?

It’s a difficult problem, with many different issues at stake. Greenpeace take it to its source: they’re campaigning to limit the production of single-use plastics. They also want better recycling facilities and more information on reuse. They want to educate governments, producers and consumers.

There are things that we as individuals can do, too – and we’ll take a look at them in our next blog.

Naturally Good Reads v2

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This post was written by Yzanne

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