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.
While the results of the study are daunting there is a silver lining: the science produced at NCEAS suggests that the tide of plastics entering the ocean can, indeed, be reversed. Solutions to the growing problem of plastic pollution are achievable, given sufficient resources and commitment.
Reduction in plastics use, especially of single-use disposable products, and recycling of plastics in developed countries can help to reduce the amount of plastic waste that enters the ocean. Catalyzing locally appropriate waste systems in rapidly growing and developing economies is also a critical strategy to turn the tide on ocean plastic pollution.
As a marine scientist working on the issue of marine debris, I have been humbled by the discovery of the scale and scope of plastic inputs to the ocean. The time is now, however, to move from a place of problem admiration and move to a place of intervention. And I am optimistic because these findings point to a solution.
Tackling the problem of plastic in the ocean begins on land and this research confirms that. By cutting in half mismanaged waste in the top 10 countries alone, we could reduce plastic waste by more than 30%. Ocean Conservancy and its Trash Free Seas Alliance are working with businesses to identify the most effective ways to do just this and support improved waste collection in these high priority countries.
Stopping the avalanche of plastic isn’t just good for the ocean – it’s good for the health, economics and well-being of the communities where the trash originates.