How does 8 million tonnes of plastic get into the ocean each year?

Plastic Free July has once again come and gone. Coined in 2011, what began as a small group of participants in Australia has now extended across the world with many of us now getting involved in the fight against single use plastic.

And this year, in the aftermath of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2, was bigger than ever with as many as 2 million people joining the challenge. But, with concerns around ocean pollution leading the list of reasons to participate, how exactly does our plastic end up in the sea?

If only all our oceans were as clean and clear as this!

It’s widely documented that as much as 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean each year. And in case you’re struggling to digest that fact (I certainly am…) it’s equivalent to dumping one truck load of rubbish every minute [1].

But with so many of us recycling our plastic, you’d wonder how it’s getting to the ocean right? Wrong – only 9% of plastics are recycled [2]. This means that the rest of our plastic waste is either going to landfill, ending up in our drains or being littered. And through each of these three routes, plastic can easily end up at sea.

A sculpture in London, made with the plastic found across 2km of the UK’s coastline

Landfill

Let’s first of all take a closer look at the plastic waste which gets collected and taken to landfill. I’d always imagined that this was a pretty safe place for our plastics to go, being stored away with the rest of our rubbish. But this is far from true – in fact, plastic is so lightweight that it often blows away either during transportation or once its there.

Drains

Another common way that plastics end up at sea is through our drainage systems. And although microbeads have now been banned from products in many countries, there are several other ways that plastic gets into our drains. Some of the worst culprits are cotton buds, face wipes and sanitary products which many people flush down their loos.

Littering

Plastic littering is another risk where people simply discard their plastic litter without disposing of it properly either due to carelessness or poor waste management systems. Even if you live many miles from sea, these plastics are easily transported by wind and rain into rivers and drainage systems that then flow out to the ocean.

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Plastic I found during a beach clean earlier this year

To add to the above, it’s not just everyday people who contribute to ocean pollution but marine activity (fishing/ shipping) and industrial leakage are certainly not to be forgotten. In fact the very production of plastic is one of the worst offenders with plastic pellets (the raw materials used to make plastics) known to leak along the production chain [3].

Another point to make is that the impact is not equal by country – far from it. A recent study found the 90% of the world’s plastic waste is carried by just 10 rivers in Africa, India in China. The Yangtze alone is thought to contribute as much as 1.5 million metric tonnes into the sea each year [4].

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Beach cleans are becoming an increasingly popular way to fight ocean pollution

Overwhelmed by the reality of the issue? You should be, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference. Here at Sustainably Simple we believe in the power of small changes so here’s 8 things you can do to help:

  1. Swap to a bamboo toothbrush
  2. Use a fabric tote bag when shopping
  3. Say no to plastic straws
  4. Buy a reusable water bottle
  5. Give up chewing gum
  6. Invest in beeswax wraps
  7. Purchase loose fruit and vegetables
  8. Refuse plastic cutlery

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4 Replies to “How does 8 million tonnes of plastic get into the ocean each year?”

  1. A great post! It is so frustrating that with all the appetite for change now in Europe, that our changes make little difference in the big picture. I do think it is slowly starting to change, however, India is implementing bans on single use plastic in the next couple of years. And when I was in Africa earlier this year, some areas had just got their first recycling plant. Change is, unfortunately, much slower in the areas that need it most – but it is happening!

    Liked by 1 person

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