The simple answer is a lot. Thankfully there are things we can all do to make a difference.
How much plastic is in the ocean? A lot. The exact amount, well, that appears to be up for debate. In 2023 a number of studies have been released, but illustrating just how challenging this problem is, the findings vary. Thankfully, the solutions are a little more clear cut.
In March, a group of international scientists released a report in the journal PLOS ONE that found a “plastic smog” hangs over the ocean, while plastic pollution continued to grow at “rapid and unprecedented” levels. Analyzing data collected from around the world between 1979 and 2019 from an upwards of 12,000 sampling sites, they estimate that there are 171 trillion plastic particles in the ocean–or 2.3 million tons.
Then, in August, another study was released in the scientific journal, Nature Geoscience, which indicated that there may actually be ten times less plastic in the ocean than previously believed.
“Model studies have suggested that the majority (67–77%) of plastics reside on beaches or in coastal waters up to 10 km offshore,” reads the report.
This lines up with a 2017 study from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature that found that 95% of plastic in the ocean comes from land, namely flowing from rivers and waterways out to sea in the form of urban runoff. Fishing and shipping also play an oversized role in the problem.
Meanwhile, the New Plastics Economy report has projected that by 2050 the plastics industry will consume 20% of oil production. So not only is plastic pollution a problem in the ocean, it’s also a petroleum problem, which is a main driver of the global climate crisis. The point is to highlight the fact that because most plastic is used only once 95% of its economic value, worth up to $120 billion annually, is lost.
A grim reminder of the future we face if action is not taken, the PLOS ONE report found that the plastic going into the oceans is likely to increase by 4% each year. This means that surface plastic could actually double in the next 20 years, leaving more than 3 million metric tons in the water for decades.
Things get way more complicated when it comes to microplastics. Consumed by sea life, settling on the seafloor, practically invisible, microplastics may be even more dangerous than the stuff you can see.
So, we don’t know exactly how much plastic is in the ocean, but it’s a lot and the problem’s only growing. While top researchers and scientists continue to study the problem, it’s too vast and critical to wait. There are solutions.
From changing everyday habits, to systemic change, to government action, the solution to plastic pollution in the ocean is multifaceted, and thankfully, not as unattainable as one might think. Everyone can do something.
In terms of everyday living, a few little adjustments to how you flow through the day and you’ll be on the path to a more plastic-free life. And it’s really not that hard. Simple things like using a water bottle instead of buying water, using reusable silverware instead of plastic silverware, skipping the plastic straw in your drink, those are all things you could do right now and it would make a difference–because every drop in the bucket counts. Then, if you can recruit a few friends to join you in the effort, the impact grows exponentially.
Something else that may take a little more effort but will pay off in not only less plastic, but also better health, is to cook at home more. Takeout containers and plastic cutlery are difficult, if not impossible to recycle in most instances. Making your meals at home and storing the leftovers in reusable containers is easy, healthy, and also a great way to save money.
Other, more obvious things like recycling and using reusable bags when possible are also easy things everyone can do to make a difference. It just takes a little awareness, identifying small tweaks you can make to your everyday routine and going for it. Like your toothbrush or deodorant, there are tons of options that have sprung up in the market over the last few years, all intended to cut down on plastic. Where there’s a will there’s a way, as they say.
Politics is a dirty game, but if you want a cleaner ocean you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and get involved. But don’t worry, you don’t have to go to Washington D.C. to be an impact player. There’s legislation on the local, state and federal levels that all needs help. From waste management policies at the local landfill, to county and state protections, to broader, more wide-reaching legislation from the U.S. government, this is where structural change happens.
In November 2023, U.S. lawmakers reintroduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2023.
“Plastic pollution isn’t just a problem for our oceans and climate–it's a massive environmental injustice,” U.S. Representative Jared Huffman said. “Communities are overburdened with plastics’ toxic air and water emissions and the false promises of so-called chemical recycling.”
The legislation “tackles the plastic pollution crisis head on, addressing the harmful climate and environmental justice impacts of this growing fossil fuel sector and moving our economy away from its over-reliance on single use plastic,” Huffman added.
The legislation seeks to ban or limit single-use plastic, as well as provide grants for more sustainable solutions. It would also place a pause on the establishment of new plastic facilities, which would be a huge step forward in terms of cutting off the plastic supply at the source.
On a state level, in 2022, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 54, which requires all packaging in the state to be recyclable or compostable by 2032.
In both instances the legislation is voluminous and complicated with various carve-outs and caveats, but they’re profoundly important given the trajectory plastic pollution in the ocean is on.
Economics is a huge part of the plastic pollution problem in the world. Until companies and industries are held to a higher standard and are forced to be accountable for their actions, it’s going to be a massive uphill battle. Everything from green energy and sustainability sectors, to automotive industry, to fashion and food service, they all have a role to play.
The radical precedent set by Patagonia should be an example for businesses of all kinds. It’s not hard to be the change if you care. In his pièce de résistance against the billionaire class, in 2022, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard made headlines around the world when he announced he was putting his company in a trust and profits would forever more be donated to environmental and climate change issues.
“Hopefully this will influence a new form of capitalism that doesn’t end up with a few rich people and a bunch of poor people,” Chouinard told the New York Times. “We are going to give away the maximum amount of money to people who are actively working on saving this planet.”
Besides more traditional businesses, riding the ocean of plastic has become an industry in and of itself. From companies turning plastic waste from the ocean into bracelets and water bottles, to businesses built around actually pulling the garbage from the seas, it’s a sad state of affairs, but thankfully there are solution-minded entrepreneurs turning trash into treasure.
Like the oceans themselves, the plastic pollution is vast and expansive. Heck, we can’t even figure out exactly how much plastic is in the ocean. There’s no one silver bullet solution to solve the problem, but there are a number of mechanisms at work that can make a difference. The worst thing we could do is simply surrender to it. As humans we created the problem and we’re going to have to get ourselves out of it.
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