6 Effects Of Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

With plastics becoming part of our lives in the 21st century, there are effects of plastic pollution in the ocean that cannot be overlooked if we must bring change. 

Plastic pollution is the accumulation of synthetic polymeric materials in the environment to the point where they create problems in the habitats they are found. Plastics can be both natural and synthetic. Natural plastics such as rubber and silk exist in abundance, but they do not play any major role in environmental pollution as they are biodegradable. However, the same cannot be said for synthetic plastics.

They are polymeric (i.e. a material whose molecules are large and are made up of a seemingly endless series of interconnected links) and have been developed specifically to defeat natural decay processes. Since synthetic plastics are majorly non-biodegradable, they tend to persist in the natural environment.

What Does Ocean Plastic Pollution Mean?

Ocean plastic pollution is simply the accumulation of plastic materials in the ocean, whether it’s from direct dumping & littering, or the transportation of plastic to the ocean by whatever means. the effect of ocean plastic pollution cannot be overemphasized.

Plastics make up 80% of all marine debris. According to research, over 400 million metric tons of plastic are produced each year and that amount is expected to double in less than 3 decades! Crazy isn’t it? By estimation, the weight of the plastic in the ocean is expected to be more than the ocean marine life by 2050. This gives a glimpse of the problem we face as a result of plastic pollution.

Scientists have shown that approximately 12 million tons of plastic are entering our oceans each year, that’s about a full truckload of plastic waste every minute!

You can read more on how plastic pollution affects sea life throughout the ocean here.

How Does Plastic Get Into the Ocean?

Plastic gets into the ocean in several ways, these include but are not limited to:

  • Littering
  • Products that go Down the Drain
  • Industrial Leakage 

1. Littering

Litter dropped on the street doesn’t stay there, rainwater and wind transport these plastic wastes into bodies of water and through sewers. Major rivers around the world carry an estimated 1.15-2.41 million tons of plastic into the sea every year.

Tourists on vacation visiting beaches and leaving behind litter also contribute directly to plastic getting into the ocean. Ironically, the result of littering by tourists is turning other visitors off destinations where the problem of ocean plastic pollution as a result of littering is most visible.

Instead of recycling plastics, some people throw them into the bin. When rubbish is being transported to a landfill, plastics are often blown away because they are lightweight. From there, it can eventually clutter around drains and enter water bodies.

2. Products that go Down the Drain

A lot of products we flush down the toilet and things we rinse off into the sink are contributing factors to plastic pollution. Many of the personal care products we use daily contain “microbeads”. Microbeads are very tiny plastic beads found in facial scrubs, shower gel, and even toothpaste. These pieces of plastics as their name imply “microbeads” are too small to be filtered by wastewater plants and may end up flowing to water bodies when they are discharged.

Plastic fibres in clothing that shed the washing machines still pose a risk for entering the ocean. These small plastic pieces end up being consumed by small marine species, posing a health risk to them and eventually even ending up in our food chain. Many people were horrified when they found out about these microbeads and it led to the banning of products containing microbeads in some countries.

3. Industrial Leakage

Industrial byproducts from improperly conducted or managed production processes are a source of ocean plastic pollution. Lax standards in industrial processes are responsible for some plastic getting into the environment.

This occurs either when the disposal of products containing plastics from industrial processes is not up to standard, they are then responsible for plastics leaking into the environment. Leakage can come during the production stage or during the transportation of the product. These leaked products find their way into water bodies and are carried by the water currents all across the world, contaminating even uninhabited islands.

A study conducted in 2019 showed that thousands of tiny industrial plastic pellets (pre-production plastic pellets) used to made plastic products, known as “nurdles” wash up on UK shorelines every year, polluting nearly three-quarters of the beaches in the United Kingdom. Some industries, to reduce cost discharge their industrial effluents into water bodies. These effluents not only contain harmful chemicals but also plastics.

Effects of Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

The following are some of the effects of plastic pollution in the ocean.

  • Negative impact on human health
  • Physical impact on marine life
  • Chemical impact on the marine environment
  • Economic impact
  • Transportation of invasive species
  • Negative impact on the food chain

1. Negative impact on human health

A negative impact on human health is one of the effects of plastic pollution in the ocean. Scientists have found microplastics in 114 marine species, and around one-third of these end up on our plates. When marine organisms ingest plastics, the BPA’s present in most plastic objects that come in direct contact with the organism metabolizes in the bodies of those organisms to form Biphenol A, and it gets into our body when we consume these organisms.

Research has proven that ingesting aquatic organisms that have been exposed to plastic-associated chemicals may interfere with hormones that regulate many processes in our bodies, cause developmental problems in children and even alter metabolic processes in ways that adversely affect human health

2. Physical impact on marine life

Physical impact on marine life is one of the effects of plastic pollution in the ocean. Plastic is harmful to living organisms, and those in the ocean are not exempted. Aquatic organisms often ingest plastic items that they mistake for food, which can cause internal health problems. Many animals like fishes, sea turtles, and other marine life become entangled in plastic products, making it difficult for them to live or escape predators.

Marine wildlife mistake plastic for prey and feed on them. Most then die of starvation as their stomachs get filled with plastic since they can neither digest nor excrete the plastic materials. They sometimes also suffer from lacerations, infections, reduced ability to swim, and internal injuries as a result of the interaction of the plastic materials with their internal organs.

3. Chemical impact on the marine environment

Chemical impact on the marine environment is one of the effects of plastic pollution in the ocean. Plastic in the ocean can cause a buildup of persistent organic pollutants. Some chemicals used to make plastic react with the saltwater in the marine environment and release harmful pollutants like PCBs and DDT. Some plastic containers used to package toxic compounds are also dumped into the ocean and they can cause a build-up of toxic pollutants in the water.

4. Economic impact

The economic impact is one of the effects of plastic pollution in the ocean. Plastic pollution damages the aesthetic value of tourist beaches, leading to decreased income from tourism. It also generates major economic costs related to the cleaning and maintenance of the sites. The build-up of plastic litter on beaches can harm a country’s economy and marine wildlife.

5. Transportation of Invasive species

Transportation of invasive species is one of the effects of plastic pollution in the ocean. Floating plastics also help transport invasive marine species, thereby threatening marine biodiversity. As waste floats across the sea, it carries non-native bacteria and other organisms to new locations, where they can be particularly harmful.

6. Negative impact on the food chain

A negative impact on the food chain is one of the effects of plastic pollution in the ocean. Because plastics come in different sizes, (large, small, microscopic) polluting plastic can affect even the smallest organisms, such as plankton. When these organisms become poisoned, this causes problems for the larger animals that depend on them for food. This effect can even spread further along the food chain. This is known as bio-accumulation.

Animals higher up the food chain are even in greater danger. In 1963, it was observed that there was a decline in the population of bald eagles in the united states. A study was conducted and it was discovered that the culprit was a substance known as DDT, which caused the eagles to lay eggs with thin shells that broke easily. This posed the question, how did the bald eagles ingest DDT, since it was used in insecticides?

The answer was later found out, the industries that produced this chemical released their waste into water bodies, causing them to be polluted. This affected the marine organisms, and when the eagles ate the affected organisms (fishes), they too were affected and it adversely affected them.

This is an example of how pollution can travel along the food chain and threaten marine biodiversity and the food chain.

Effects of Plastic Pollution in the Ocean – FAQs

Who is to blame for ocean plastic pollution?

Since 1950, plastic production has increased about 200 fold, and it has been estimated that only 9% of plastic ever made has been recycled. The rest was burned, thrown away, or discarded in nature.

Humans invented plastic, and they are also users of plastic. One could spend time arguing and pointing fingers in a bid to blame plastic pollution on a particular party, but the fact remains that the only way to curb plastic pollution is for us humans to take responsibility and work towards stopping this menace.

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) blames six Asian nations as the main sources of ocean pollution but fails to take note of areas where the US is at fault. The fact remains that richer countries tend to waste more plastics than poorer ones.

60% of the wastes that enter the ocean does so from just 10 rivers, 8 in Asia and 2 in Africa. This does not account for scenarios where plastics enter the ocean as a result of natural disasters such as tsunamis and hurricanes.

Ocean plastic waste is more diverse than just the waste that comes from land, this is because there is a lot we don’t know about illegal dumping of plastic waste in the ocean. Illegal dumping largely goes unnoticed because the ocean is a blind spot, and due to its vastness, activities that occur in it cannot be closely monitored.

It is impossible to pinpoint the exact culprits of ocean plastic pollution as we all in one or another contribute to ocean plastic pollution. A seemingly simple act of ignoring littered can be the reason why it ends up in the ocean.

The responsibility however to stop plastic pollution lies with three parties, The government, production companies, and the consumers. Each of these parties can in one way or another influence each other and play a significant role in stopping plastic pollution.

But instead of tackling this issue, people tend to point fingers at each other. Companies tend to place responsibility on the consumers to behave responsibly and prevent littering, the government in turn is reluctant to come up with new regulations and policies, let alone enforce them, and consumers like to point fingers at the government and companies while they can do a lot themselves.

How can we stop plastic pollution in the Ocean?

Stopping ocean plastic pollution is not a one-day affair, neither is it a one-man affair. The three parties highlighted above (government, production companies & consumers) need to contribute to stopping ocean plastic pollution. The different parties can help stop plastic pollution in the ocean by:

Government

  • Through the implementation of the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA)
  • Engaging the conservation and restoration of coastal regions
  • Creation and strict enforcing of regulations and policies to prevent discharge of waste in the ocean
  • Imposing a tax on production companies to deter the production of single-use plastics and to use the tax to fund other clean-up projects
  • Setting standards to promote the manufacture of biodegradable plastics
  • Engage in routine inspection of production companies to ensure that all guidelines are followed
  • Fund mapping, surveillance, and research into ocean plastic pollution
  • Increase funds for cleanup exercises

Consumers

  • Reduce the use of single-use plastics
  • Stop buying water
  • Avoid products that contain microbeads
  • Purchase items secondhand
  • Recycle
  • Buy in bulk
  • Reuse plastic bags whenever possible
  • Put pressure on manufacturers for them to adopt alternative techniques to reduce plastic production
  • Educate others using whatever platforms possible (Social media, signposts, word of mouth, etc.)
  • Organize and engage in beach cleanup exercises
  • Substitute plastic bags for paper bags where possible
  • Replace plastic Tupperware with glass or stainless steel containers
  • Use wooden pegs instead of plastic ones to hang out washing
  • Avoid cosmetic products with microplastics (microbeads) and also opt for biodegradable clothing.

Production companies

  • Companies can provide incentives to promote reuse and recycling
  • Prevent leakages in manufacturing plants by making sure leakages do not occur
  • Follow all laid-down guidelines without cutting corners
  • Use alternative design methods to reduce or completely stop the use of single-use plastics in product packaging
  • Educate consumers on the importance of recycling using their products.

How much plastic is in the ocean?

Yearly, more than 12 million tons of plastic enter our oceans. It escapes from landfill sites, floats down our drains, ends up in rivers, and makes its way into our oceans. A lot of plastic waste is invisible to the naked eye, it collects in ocean gyres, where marine wildlife feeds.

About 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our ocean daily, 79% of plastic waste is sent to landfills or the ocean, while only 9% is recycled. Over 25 trillion macro waste litter our oceans. Of that, 269000 tons float on the surface, and that volume is expected to triple by 2050. This is the equivalent of 1345 blue whales and 500 times the number of stars in our galaxy.

165million tons of plastic currently circulates in the earth’s marine environments and only 1% of marine litter floats. Plastic pollution has even been observed in the Mariana Trench (the deepest part of the ocean).

Is plastic pollution in the ocean an issue of global concern?

Ocean plastic pollution is a widespread problem that greatly affects the marine environment. It threatens the ocean habitat, food safety, and quality, coastal tourism, and contributes to climate change. The issue of ocean plastic pollution is vast and underrated! Most times we as humans tend to take things seriously only when it has become unbearable. Because ocean plastic pollution is not always a visible problem, it is underfunded.

Ocean plastic pollution is an issue of global concern because, despite the defaulter, everyone is affected in one way or another. It would be a gross falsification to imply that majority of the world’s ocean plastic pollution comes from third world countries when it is known that first world countries use more products than third world countries.

There are currently five garbage patches (large areas of the ocean where litter, fishing gear, and other debris collects) in the world, one in the Indian Ocean, two in the Atlantic Ocean, and two in the Pacific Ocean and the largest of them is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” located in the North Pacific Gyre (between Hawaii and California).

The term “patch” is a misleading nickname, causing many to believe that these are islands of trash but the fact is that marine debris is spread across the surface of the water and from the surface of the water to the ocean floor. The largest of these garbage patches covers an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France or 4.5 times the size of Germany.

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