Plastic in the ocean

Facts about plastic in the ocean

Plastic is a big part of our everyday life and is often seen in many of the products we use daily. It ranges from food packaging, the toothpaste tube and plastic fibers in synthetic clothing, to aircraft parts and car tires. Furthermore, there is microplastic that is defined as small pieces of plastic smaller than 5 mm and is found in beauty products and paint.

The production of plastic has exploded over the last 50 years – from 15 mio. tonnes in 1965 to 348 mio. tonnes in 2017. If this continues, the amount of plastic will be doubled in less than 20 years.

Plastik i havet
SOURCE: Journal of Science Advances (2017) Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.

How much plastic ends up in the oceans?

In 2015 a study conducted by Jenna Jambeck from University of Georgia was published, concluding that each year around 8 mio. tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the ocean, equaling to a truckload of plastic waste emptied in the ocean every single minute.

The consequences are fatal to our marine environment. Both international and Danish studies shows that plastic particles are found in mussels, tap water, salt, honey, beer and in the stomach of many animals.

Sea turtles mix up plastic bags with jellyfish, microplastic is found in fish, and more than 90% of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs. The plastic pollution makes up a bigger and bigger threat to the marine environment and to human health. A study from 2019 shows how the production and use of plastic affect the health of humans from extraction of oil to waste management after use.

albatros med plastik i maven - Chris Jordan

Where does the plastic come from?

Plastic waste ends up in the oceans through many different routes. The UN Environmental Programme, UNEP, estimates that globally around 80% of the waste that ends up in the ocean comes from land-based activities such as: dumping, industry, waste from surge drains, unprocessed waste water and tourism. The remaining 20% comes from activities on water such as: fishery, shipping industry, ferries, cruise ships and offshore industry (oil and gas rigs).

The list of sources of plastic in the oceans is therefore very long. Analyses have been made on how much each country contributes to pollution and on how much plastic packaging material is recycled, incinerated, deposited ashore and ends up in the oceans.

Facts Plastic pollution in the ocean

The issue with single-use plastic

One of the biggest challenges of plastic pollution is the high production and use of single-use plastics; plastic that is only used once and then thrown away without being recycled. Examples of single-use plastic are plastic straws and plastic packaging around our food products. In Europe plastic packaging make up for 39.7% of all used plastic.

We find a lot of single-use plastic when we clean up beaches both internationally and in Denmark.

There is no such thing as plastic islands

It is a myth that there are plastic islands in the oceans. But there are large areas in the ocean with high concentrations of degraded plastic, the so-called gyres or ‘plastic soups’.

The microplastic gathers in five big soups in the oceans due to ocean currents. Together they make up an area the size of Africa. Here, there is a very high concentration of degraded particles that float just beneath the surface. There can be six times as much plastic than plankton.

Dangerous chemistry in the oceans – but plastic soups

The plastic we release into the ocean can act like a sponge for the chemicals that already present in the sea.

Plastic Change supports the research into understanding the toxic consequences of plastic pollution in the sea. Plastics consist of several kinds of polymers added different chemicals that gives the specific plastic the properties looked for in the specific product – such as softeners (phthalates), sun filters and fire inhibitors. These added chemicals reach the sea with the plastic they are in.

On top of that research points to an additional course of concern, as results indicate that the plastic we release works like a sponge to the harmful chemicals already present, e.g. DDT and PCB. This is particularly problematic regarding microplastic, that are eaten by marine animals, fish and other organisms mistaking the plastic for food.

Collaborating with Roskilde Unicersity Plastic Change wishes to elaborate this research and look at micro plastic down to nano size using model studies for research into whether chemicals are transported in the food chains and the effects from this.