It starts with our trash. A study conducted in 2015 estimated that out of the 6,300 million metric tons of plastic generated since the end of World War II. 500 million tonnes of plastic objects are produced each year. Of that, 260 million tonnes are discarded. Only 9% of discarded plastic is recycled, and 12% is incinerated, leaving approximately 200 million tonnes—13 million tonnes of which end up in the ocean.
Rivers are a major source of plastic waste into the oceans. We estimate that over 1000 rivers are accountable for 80% of global annual emissions which range between 0.8 – 2.7 million metric tons per year, with small urban rivers amongst the most polluting.
Much of our ocean plastic comes from shipping or from abandoned fishing gear, including nets, baskets, and cages. Much of it also comes from consumer products, which the sun, wind, and water eventually break down into microplastics. Microplastics are tiny particles less than half a centimeter long, and they largely come from consumer products.
Microfibers from synthetic textiles such as acrylic, polyester, and cotton-polyester blends are the number one contributor to the ocean’s microplastics. When you wash clothing made of synthetic fabrics, tiny fibers enter the drainage system and are swept up into our rivers, eventually making their way to the ocean.
How much plastic is in the ocean?
In 2018, the oceans already contained over 150 million tonnes of plastic waste, and the United Nations Environmental Program estimates that 13 million tonnes of trash are dumped into the oceans each year. Plastic has been found 11,000 meters below sea level in the deepest point on the planet—the Challenger Deep. And between California and Hawaii, an 80,000-tonne garbage patch three times the size of France is has been nicknamed “the eighth continent”.
By 2050, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the ocean will contain more plastics than fish.
What are the effects of plastic on the environment?
Millions of animals each year are killed by plastics, with most deaths being caused by strangulation or starvation. Nearly 700 species are known to be affected. Almost all seabirds ingest plastic, but it also affects land-based animals such as elephants, zebras, and cattle. Ingestion of plastics can cause liver damage and disruptions to reproductive systems. Fish eat microplastics even in their first days of life.
How does plastic in the ocean affect humans?
If you consume seafood regularly, you likely eat approximately 11,000 pieces of microplastic per year.
In addition, 90% of worldwide salt brands sampled contained microplastics, according to a study conducted by Greenpeace and Incheon National University.
Microplastics have even been found in municipal drinking water systems. These tiny particles can enter the bloodstream, the lymphatic system, and the liver. It is unknown what health risks they may bring to humans.
What can you do to prevent ocean plastic pollution?
All of this may make you feel like you’re drowning in an ocean of plastic, but the situation is not hopeless. While it can be very difficult to remove plastic from the ocean once it’s there, there are lots of ways individuals can make a difference in the amount of trash that gets discarded:
Avoid single-use plastics. Decline drinking straws and disposable cutlery when eating out, invest in a reusable grocery bag and remember to take it with you when you shop, and buy your food in bulk to avoid packaged products.
Replace your plastic food storage containers with glass or stainless steel. Just remember to use your plasticware to the end of its useful life before investing in more eco-friendly alternatives.
Avoid cosmetics and bath products with plastic microbeads. Instead, select natural products. (Why would you want to rub plastic on your face anyway?)
Avoid fast fashion made with synthetic fabrics. Consider choosing biodegradable clothing or used clothes.
Recycle. Look for ways to recycle anything you cannot reuse, donate, or compost.
Support organizations that make an impact
The PANGEA movement is all about cleaning up trash from the planet and from the ocean. It started with our shared love of travel. When we realized that you can’t see the world without also seeing a lot of trash, we started cleaning, selling cheap microfiber towels to fund the effort. It didn’t take us long to realize that microfibers themselves get into the ocean and pollute the planet. And that’s how we became obsessed with keeping plastic out of the ocean.
The PANGEA movement makes an all-natural bamboo travel towel, using the profits to fund global trash cleanups and the installation of river barriers in partnership with Sungai Watch, preventing trash from entering into the ocean. Every $10 we make helps us to remove two pounds of trash from the earth and two pounds of carbon dioxide from the air.