Experts estimate that about 14 million metric tonnes of plastic enter our oceans annually. These numbers are overwhelming, and as changemakers, it's hard to imagine how we can reduce plastic pollution in the ocean. But sustainability begins at home.
The plastics collected in our water bodies are there because we put them there. Tackling the global problem of ocean plastic pollution will require a concerted effort from households, communities, businesses, and governments. However, we must identify and address our daily contribution to this problem.
The first step? Find out how plastics go into the ocean from our homes, workspaces, and factories.
Approximately 80% of the litter in the seas comes from the land. Industrial processes and factories are responsible for a proportion of plastic pollution. Poor industrial waste management and commercial practices are partly to blame.
But individuals and households also play a role in creating our plastic pollution crisis. It is important to realize that almost all of us will contribute to this issue somehow.
By better understanding our contribution to ocean plastic pollution, we can reduce microplastics and nutrient pollution that harm marine species and help keep our oceans clean. Individuals and households contribute to plastic pollution through:
One of the direct ways that plastic ends up in our waterways and oceans is through littering. Visitors leave plastic bottles, plastic bags, and other picnic items on beaches, or the wind blows plastic debris to the rivers or shores.
However, while littering is a problem, many people interested in sustainable living and our environment will know to take their litter home. It is the less well-known and more hidden causes of plastic ocean pollution that are the main problem.
Many plastics in our homes, especially single-use plastics, are not recyclable. Even that which is recyclable, we often don't– sometimes due to contamination but often also for economic reasons. Usually, recycling businesses simply do not find it profitable to recycle lower-grade plastics. That, too, can result in more plastic ending up in landfills.
Contamination is also a problem with recycling. Even if you sort your refuse properly, your household plastics can still end up in a landfill. You might have washed out your plastic containers and put them in the correct bin, but that doesn't mean everyone else will. If someone else doesn't wash their plastics out properly, then it can result in everything in that bin going to the landfill rather than the recycling plant.
Plastic en route to landfills or at landfill sites can easily fly off the trucks, ending up in the streets. The plastics are carried by wind and rain to our waterways, and much of this plastic leakage ultimately finds its way to the sea.
Another way lots of plastic makes it from our homes into the oceans is through our drains. Microbeads in cosmetic products such as face and body washes are one primary source of plastic pollution. These are too small for the wastewater plants to filter out and may end up in water that eventually flows back to the ocean.
People also flush single-use plastic items such as wet wipes, cotton bud sticks, or sanitary products, which can also make their way into the wider environment. Many people are unaware that certain products they are using contain plastic. They are oblivious to the potential for these items to make their way from their homes, down the drain, and eventually into aquatic and marine environments.
Another common source of plastic pollution that many people are unaware of is fibers from synthetic clothing. Plastic fibers will travel down the drain when we wash synthetic clothing in washing machines. Outdoor gear, leggings, fleeces, and jumpers made from acrylic and polyester, polyamide, spandex, and nylon can shed up to 700,000 microfibres with each wash1.
Plastic items often erode as we use them, and tiny plastic pieces will become detached and enter the wider environment. These microplastics (plastics less than 5mm in length) form another source of plastic entering the ocean. One example of this, which has a significant impact, is driving cars and other vehicles. Tires (due to road friction) create a vast amount of plastic dust.
Of course, plastic comes not just from individual households but also commercial and industrial sources. Businesses and governments also have important roles to play in reducing plastic waste that ends up in our oceans. Waste coming from production facilities also accounts for a large proportion of the plastic waste that ends up in the marine environment.
However, as the consumers who buy and use these products, we can incite change in these areas. To put a stop to plastic pollution, we should take some serious measures.
Lobbying plastic production companies and those that create goods from disposable plastics and continue to produce non-recyclable plastics are crucial. This also includes those responsible for releasing plastic waste into the environment We all have voices, and we should use them as drivers for sustainable change.
But perhaps one of the most important ways to make your opinion matter is to put your money where your mouth is. We can help tackle plastic pollution in the ocean by refusing to buy items we know to harm. We should refuse all single-use plastics whenever we can. And avoid buying plastic items at all when there is a better, greener alternative available.
Of course, we're stronger together, and plastic waste is bigger than any one of us. Consider how you might play a role in helping your local community go plastic-free or be inspired and take action to support your local schools going plastic-free.
One primary source of plastic pollution is plastic food packaging and the packaging of other items we buy. Most plastic is virtually indestructible and will be with us for literally 100s of years. To reduce the packaging we bring into our homes, we can buy less and buy better. We should:
In addition to reducing consumption in general and avoiding plastic packaging, we can also help tackle ocean plastic by finding alternatives to many plastic products.
For example, we can help overall ocean health by:
Of course, these are just a few examples. There are plastic-free alternatives for most of the common products we use.
Of course, to keep plastic waste out of our oceans and natural environment, we all need to think more carefully about what we flush down our drains. Be careful not to flush anything containing plastic down your drains accidentally.
We also must think carefully about when and how we wash synthetic clothes. Even when you are careful to choose sustainable clothing, it is unlikely that you will be able to avoid synthetic clothing entirely.
And sadly, a tiny fraction of the microplastics our clothes shed in each wash end up in our oceans, consumed by fish, and potentially back on our tables, causing problems for human health.
Wash at a low temperature and in bulk. Consider washing synthetic fabrics in a bag to catch microfibres. Or add a filter.
Of course, no matter how careful we are, we will likely still have plastic to dispose of. This is where recycling comes in. We must be careful to wash and sort well and ensure we always recycle whatever we can, both at home and through curbside/ municipal recycling schemes.
Plastic pollution caused by the friction of car tires on roads is yet another reason to drive as little as possible when trying to live in a more sustainable and eco-friendly way. Walk or cycle rather than take a car whenever you can.
Finally, if you want to go that extra mile to help tackle plastic pollution in the ocean, you should consider getting involved with a beach clean. While beach cleans cannot tackle the root causes of plastic pollution or do anything about microplastics, they can help keep wildlife safe and reduce the problem at least a little in your local area.
Plastic pollution and its environmental impacts, specifically on our oceans, is a massive problem. One garbage truck of plastic waste enters the ocean every minute. It is not one that we can solve overnight. But by taking a series of small steps as individuals, we can help move things in the right direction and ensure we are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
These steps in the right direction will support marine conservation and significantly improve the success of other eco-conscious agendas.
|1||Carney Almroth BM, Åström L, Roslund S, Petersson H, Johansson M, Persson NK. Quantifying shedding of synthetic fibers from textiles; a source of microplastics released into the environment. Environ Sci Pollut Res Int. 2018;25(2):1191‐1199. doi:10.1007/s11356-017-0528-7|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.