Find the most frequently asked questions and answers about plastic pollution, consequences on marine life and what you can do to prevent more plastic pollution in our oceans.
1. FACTS ABOUT PLASTIC POLLUTION
Why is plastic in the environment a problem?
Around 8-12 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, and if it continues there will be 1 ton of plastic to every 3 tons of fish in the ocean by 2025. Plastic has many consequences for the environment. For example, it may be a threat to animals, because they think it is food. This means that there are animals who choke on plastic or die from starvation.
When the plastic floats in the ocean, it can absorb environmental poisons and dangerous chemicals that the animals consume when they eat the plastic, and people ingest it when they, for example, eat fish. Plastic is also ugly when seen lying in nature, and it can clog streams and choke plants when it piles up.
Where is the plastic in the ocean coming from?
Plastic is discharged from several different sources. 80% of the waste that ends in the ocean comes from land-based activities (landfills, industries, storm drains, tourism, untreated water waste) and the remaining 20% comes from ocean-based activities (cruise ships, ferries, fishing, container shipping, off-shore industries like oil and gas platforms).
Why is there so much plastic in the ocean?
Because for many years we have had a plastic party, where we produced many cheap and strong plastic products without really thinking about future environmental consequences. Just think of how much plastic there is in the products that you use every day: clothes, shoes, cellphones, toys, pens and the packaging of the many grocery products you buy in the store. Waste management systems around the world are very different in scale and efficiency, with waste ending up as landfill in many polluting countries.
In many ways plastic is an extremely durable and useful material. But it is often used just ONCE – single-use plastic – for example in packaging, plastic bags or single-use cups, after which quite a lot of it is discarded into nature, and damaging the wildlife and marine environment. This is happening both in Denmark and many other countries.
Why doesn’t plastic just degrade or decompose?
Plastic is made from polymers. Oil can be converted into plastic polymers, and then a number of chemicals such as softeners (phthalates) and sun filters are added making the plastic very sturdy.
The different plastic types, that are made from plastic polymers, have different characteristics that are broken down in different ways depending on the specific material. A common feature of the plastic types is that sunlight and physical forces can erode the plastic into microplastic.
In the ocean, the sun and waves break down larger pieces of plastic into microplastic, but it doesn’t disappear completely. Therefore, we have to be very careful not to throw out plastic waste and to not leave even a single piece in the ocean and nature.
Which countries does most of the plastic in the ocean come from?
Approximately 60% of the plastic in the ocean comes from China, Indonesia, The Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. The reason why these countries have a high plastic pollution is because they are countries experiencing economic growth. This means that the population is buying more goods. This is happening without the countries having an effective waste disposal system. Instead it is nature (often rivers and other bodies of water) that is used as a trashcan, since there aren’t many other options.
However, it is important to remember that the countries where you see a lot of plastic pollution are often also the countries that produce a lot of the products that we in the West overconsume without reflecting on the consequences.
What are the sources of microplastic?
Microplastic comes from several different places. It comes from usage of products such as dishcloths, plastic sponges, car tires and clothes made from synthetic fibers. It also comes from larger pieces of plastic that are lying in nature and slowly degrading into smaller and smaller pieces through waves and sunlight, for example. It can come from, for example, exfoliating creams, where microplastic beads are added. It can also come from industries spilling the small plastic pellets that are used to make plastic. Most of the microplastic ends up in nature and in the ocean because it is flushed out through the storm drains or with the runoff of rainwater.
Is plastic pollution even a problem in Denmark?
Denmark is the country in Europe that generates the most trash per capita. Despite Denmark having a well-established waste disposal system, where sanitation workers collect trash and transport it to, for example, an incinerator, we still see a lot of plastic pollution around in our nature. See for yourself in the pictures below.
Denmark has invested a lot of money in waste incineration, where we burn our waste and convert it into electricity and district heating. Here at Plastic Change we believe that this is a poor solution because plastic is a valuable material, if dealt with it correctly. In Denmark we have a responsibility to reduce our use of plastic. At the same time, we have to become better at reusing plastic instead of what we are doing now, exporting it to countries like Germany who recycle it for us.
2. ABOUT CONSEQUENCES
2a… for animals
How does it affect animal wildlife?
Plastic represents a great threat to many animal species. Many animals confuse pieces of plastic with food, so they end up eating it (both large and small pieces of plastic, depending on the size of the animal). Since plastic cannot be digested like normal food it inhibits the animals’ ability to eat real food and it can often lead the animal to die of starvation. Other animals die because they get wrapped up and stuck in plastic and cannot break free. Furthermore, researchers have discovered that plastic absorbed by blue mussels hurts their ability to reproduce.
How many animals die each year from plastic pollution, and what are the consequences for ocean life?
It is impossible to know with certainty how many animals die from plastic pollution, but several studies show that the pollution has massive consequences on wildlife. For example, a recent study from the University of Essex and Plymouth Marine Laboratory found plastic in 102 out of 102 sea turtles from the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean as well as the Mediterranean Sea.
This factsheet provides facts from the UN about marine pollution and how it affects marine environment.
Are there repercussions when plastic ends on up on the ocean floor?
Scientists believe that 80% of the plastic in the aquatic environment ends on the ocean floor, where it potentially poses a threat equal to the plastic on the ocean surface. Plastic erodes over time into microplastic. The researchers do not yet know to what extent the disintegrated plastic floats to surface again or if it stays on the ocean floor. Organisms that live in the depths of the ocean live on and off of plastic and filtrates the broken-down plastic. Through this the plastic particles find their way into the food chain. However, this is an area that calls for further research. Out of sight is not out of mind.
2b. … for humans
How does plastic pollution affect our food from the ocean?
We know that plastic is eaten by different species of fish that people consume (e.g. herring). When fish eat the pieces of plastic several processes happen within the stomachs of the fish, ultimately ending with the chemicals in the plastic being absorbed into their body tissue. When we eat the fish these chemicals are transferred to us. There is not yet sufficient research to say for certain if the chemicals are spread throughout our circulatory system and tissue.
What does it mean for human health that there is so much plastic in the ocean? What does plastic do to us? Is it dangerous to our health?
We know that people, due to the extensive plastic pollution, ingest plastic through air pollution and some foods. But researchers do not yet know a lot about the physical and/or health consequences plastic has for the human body. This is primarily due to the fact that it is very difficult to research, because of the many factors that need to be controlled (we are constantly exposed to various different chemicals from many different sources throughout our everyday life). A report released in the beginning of 2019 shows the hidden cost of plastic and plastic pollution on human health, showing that at every stage of its lifecycle, plastic poses distinct risk to human health, from when the oil is extracted from the ground to waste management.
Animal research has shown that there is a decrease in the reproductive ability in mussels and others, therefore we believe that we should err on the side of caution, meaning that we should be hesitant when using plastic constantly until research can prove that it isn’t harmful.
2c. … for the climate
What is the connection between plastic and climate change?
Plastic is connected to climate change in every stage: from the extraction of oil and gas for plastic, in the production phase and in the disposal stage. Furthermore, CO2 is emitted when plastic is broken down by the sun’s rays in nature. Currently a total of 6% of the global raw oil extraction is used for plastic, equaling the aviation sectors global usage. This number does not include the oil that is used afterwards in transportation, processing, handling and more.
3. WHO’S RESPONSIBILITY IS IT?
How big of a role do the producers have, and what can they do?
Corporations who produce plastic have a massive and important role and responsibility in preventing plastic waste. They can, for example, create products that are easier to sort and reuse, so consumers aren’t responsible for separating the different plastic types in a product from each other, in order for them to be recycled.
What is being done politically?
In December 2018 the EU approved a strategy for plastic which, among others, forbids plastic cutlery and plates, Q-tips made from plastic and sticks for balloons. The strategy also focuses on improving plastic product designs and the goal of recycling 90% of all bottles, cups and glasses.
Denmark followed suit with a national plastic plan of action with a series of good suggestions of how Denmark can be a part of minimizing plastic pollution. Although Plastic Change and several other environmental organizations have criticized this plan for lacking concrete goals for several of the initiatives, and it is sorely lacking proper fund allocation to reach these goals.
Who bears the responsibility for the pollution? And why?
Everyone in the community has a responsibility. The plastic pollution is a result of our throw-away society. The manufacturers and the industry have provided consumers with plastic products that can satisfy the momentary need (instead of thinking smart product design). This has happened without the politicians setting boundaries for or requirements of how these products are made and how they are to be disposed of again.
4a. What can I do?
As an individual what can I do to minimize plastic pollution?
There are many small everyday changes that can be done to help minimize plastic pollution. First and foremost, we need to use less plastic, and this includes those who produce and sell products and everyone who uses the products in their day-to-day life.
We have provided 7 good examples of how to do this that you can follow and share with others.
Furthermore, you can make sure that you never leave things in nature, always put them in a trashcan.
A change can also be made by starting the discussion about plastic and plastic pollution with your peers, start a discussion, show pictures, articles and videos, get your social circle to be interested or just focus their attention on the issue.
What can Denmark do to minimize plastic pollution in the oceans?
Denmark can become a lot better at utilizing the value of plastic, instead of large quantities of plastic being incinerated we need to be better at recycling and reusing it. We need to create products that can be easily reused. The plastic that is distributed needs to return to a system that reuses or recycles it. Plastic needs to be a part of what is called a circular economy.
Denmark should take a lead role in the development of better technology for a more efficient recycling of plastic, as well as implement requirements to reduce the amount of plastic used in every stage of the plastic’s journey. The solutions should be firmly embedded in legislation (e.g. through taxes, regulations on production emissions, a ban on certain types/products, quality requirements, etc.)
What can we use the plastic waste for?
Different stakeholders are working on how to use the collected plastic (e.g. from the oceans) in making new plastic products. However, it is difficult to use the plastic collected from the oceans because it is often very dirty and consists of many different types of plastic.
Is there an alternative product we can use instead of plastic?
In many ways plastic is a fantastic product, but it isn’t always the best material to use, and sometimes you don’t even need an alternative. We have a rule of thumb that says to avoid single-use plastic, because it is disposed of after one use.
Alternatives to plastic could be bamboo, glass, fabric or metal, but sturdy high-quality plastic can also be the right choice because it can be reused time after time. An example of this are the thick plastic grocery bags that last for several years.
Can’t we just use bio and biodegradable plastic instead?
There are other materials that can replace plastic in certain products. Here we differentiate between bioplastic and biodegradable plastic. It is important to remember that these are two different things:
- Bioplastic is made of carbon from plant materials, but it has the same chemical structure as normal plastic, therefore it doesn’t degrade in nature. However, this type can be recycled.
- Biodegradable plastic is produced from carbon found in fossil fuels or biomass and it has a chemical structure different to that of bioplastic and regular plastic. The material can decompose but it requires specific bacteria and temperatures for this to happen. This type cannot be recycled. Therefore, we do not recommend this type of plastic.
4c. … Clean ups
Why don’t we just clean up the whole ocean?
Plastic is found in pretty much every layer of the ocean column and approximately 95% is actually found on the ocean bed. In some places the ocean bed is over 10 kilometers deep, and it is very difficult to reach those depths. If the plastic lies in the ocean for a long period of time, it slowly gets broken down into microplastic by the sun’s UV-rays and powerful ocean currents. The almost microscopic sizes mean that is almost impossible to filtrate it without impacting the different ocean organisms and small animals that are essential for our ocean environment.
The powerful currents and winds out on the open sea make it difficult for even advanced technology to clean it. The conditions mean that it is very likely that the various tools used in cleaning the ocean will break or need frequent repares.
What is being done to minimize the amount of plastic being discharged into the oceans and to remove it?
There already initiatives and methods put into action, such as the Dutch “The Ocean Clean-up” and other “vacuum” methods where they are working on removing plastic from the ocean.
However, the effectiveness/sustainability of these methods are being discussed as well as if this method is even worth spending so much time and money on.
Here at Plastic Change we believe that we should focus on finding a solution to the problem on land, before the plastic finds its way into nature and the oceans. We can do this by recycling and reusing plastic as well as by avoiding single-use plastic products like straws, cutlery and cups.
5. ABOUT PLASTIC CHANGE
Why a Danish environmental organization that works just with plastic?
Plastic Change is a Danish based organization with a global vision. Only through seeking international cooperation can we find a solution to plastic in nature. The issue of plastic in nature is so urgent and great that it demands a focused effort and international collaboration if there is going to be a paradigm shift. We believe that by keeping the focus on this single large environmental problem, we can achieve a greater clout with politicians and corporations.
What are we doing to help the environment in regard to plastic?
Plastic Change is working on reducing plastic pollution by influencing commitment, political work, information and documentation. The solution must be found on land, if we want to reduce the amount of plastic ending up on the ocean. That is why we focus on land-based activities as the most important solution rather than cleaning up the ocean. The solutions are a range of political actions (e.g. through laws and regulations of specific types or products of plastic), action from the industry (e.g. through designing plastic products that are easy to sort and recycle, and therefore not made out of different types of plastic), and through information and engagement to the consumer, and create awareness about plastic pollution and its consequences.
All in all, we should use far less plastic and work on reducing the different stages of the plastic’s journey.
Do you do research? What have you found out?
We contribute with research data from different projects as well as from our expeditions. See the links below for more information:
Plastfri Roskilde Fjord (Danish only)
How do you get your message out there? What means do you use?
We do this through (among other things) teaching materials for schools, lectures, by being present at many different events (where we engage in conversations with people), through social media and projects.
What is your attitude towards plastic?
We don’t think that you should completely stop using plastic, since there are several instances where it is a very good and practical product. But we have to have a more environmentally friendly relationship with plastic, and we have to use a lot less of it and preferably avoid unnecessary plastic, such as single-use plastic products (reduce and reuse). Furthermore, we should be better at reusing plastic and taking advantage of its value as a material.