There are three main sources.
The world’s oceans are drowning in plastic. A dire prediction from the Dame Ellen MacArthur Foundation says there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the oceans by 2050; whether or not this turns out to be true, we do know that marine wildlife is suffering greatly from the effects of plastic pollution right now. Animals are frequently caught and suffocated in floating garbage, and many ingest it, mistaking it for food. Plastic travels up the food chain, with the average seafood eater consuming 11,000 pieces of microplastic a year.
But where exactly does all this plastic come from? An article by Louisa Casson for Greenpeace UK explains that there are three main sources for ocean plastic pollution.
#1 – Our garbage
You may have good intentions when tossing a plastic water bottle in the recycling bin, but chances are it will never see new life in the form of a recycled bottle. Of the 480 billion plastic beverage bottles sold in 2016 alone, less than half were collected for recycling, and of that only 7 percent was turned into new plastic.
The rest linger on Earth indefinitely. Some stay in landfills, but these are often blown by the wind into waterways and urban drainage networks, eventually making their way out to sea. The same happens to litter on beaches, in parks, and along city streets.
“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.”
#2 – Down the drain
Many cosmetics and skin care products contain tiny pieces of plastic. Anything with scrubbing power, like an exfoliant or toothpaste, may contain plastic microbeads. These get washed down the drain and cannot be filtered out by water treatment plants, since the pieces are so small. They remain in the water supply, where they’re often eaten by small fish, even zooplankton.
Another major problem that’s just starting to get public attention is that of microfibers – how synthetic fabrics release miniscule plastic fibers with every wash into the water supply. (The Story of Stuff does a good job explaining this.)
#3 – Industrial leakage
One of plastic’s preliminary forms is nurdles, a.k.a. mermaid’s tears. Decribed by Speak Up For Blue, nurdles are
“a pre-production plastic pellet used in manufacturing and packaging that is about 5mm long and usually cylindrical in shape. They are the most economical way to transfer large amounts of plastic to end-use manufacturers around the globe with the United States producing about 60 billion pounds of them annually.”
The problem is, ships and trains sometimes leak or dump them accidentally in transit; or production waste isn’t dealt with properly. Once spilled, nurdles are impossible to clean up. At a beach count held earlier this year, nurdles were found on 75 percent of UK beaches, even remote ones.
Ocean plastic pollution is the result of a deeply skewed system – where production of a non-biodegradable product is allowed to continue unchecked, despite there being no effective or safe disposal methods. (Recycling clearly doesn’t count, since a mere 9 percent of all plastic produced since the 1950s has been recycled.)
Finding a solution, Casson writes, requires getting to the source of the problem. We need governments to take this on, such as Costa Rica, which has pledged impressively to eliminate all single-use plastics by 2021.
We need mandated percentages of recycled material in new bottles, preferably 100 percent – although, according to the The Guardian, “brands are hostile to using [recycled plastic] for cosmetic reasons because they want their products in shiny, clear plastic.” Companies should be responsible for the full life cycle of their product, including collection and repurposing.
We need ongoing consumer campaigns that educate people about the impact of single-use plastics, both in new, exploding markets such as China, India, and Indonesia, and here in North America. More people must understand the benefits of zero-waste shopping and reusable containers, and stores should be given incentives by governments to offer refillable, package-free options.