How Does Plastic Pollution Enter the Ocean? (Explained)

How Does Plastic Pollution Enter the Ocean? (Explained)

A large amount of the plastic that we produce ends up polluting the the environment, in particular our oceans. Much of the plastic that we use eventually reaches the ocean, collecting in garbage piles like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

In fact, between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean every single year!

But, how exactly does so much plastic pollution enter the ocean? After all, it’s not like we just blatantly dump that much plastic into the ocean, right?

Well, the short answer is: much of the plastic that enters the ocean was originally plastic litter that was dropped onto the streets. Wind and rainwater runoff carried that plastic into rivers or city drains, where it was eventually carried into the ocean.

Photo illustrating plastic pollution in the ocean

However, this isn’t the only way that plastic can enter the ocean. It can also enter the ocean through unlikely places—including from some toothpaste or cosmetic products (in the form of microplastics)!

Below, I will explain in detail the different ways that plastic pollution reaches the ocean, and how you can prevent plastic from entering (and harming) our beautiful marine ecosystems.

Landfill

Most plastic that is thrown away will end up in a landfill site. Here’s how plastic might enter the ocean through landfills:

While your rubbish is being transported to a landfill, or even once it has reached the landfill site, it’s not uncommon for pieces of plastic to blow away due to the material being so lightweight. These plastic pieces can then eventually clutter around storm drains, and enter rivers or streams which lead to the sea.

Recycling as much plastic as possible can help solve this issue. If you can’t recycle certain plastics in your area, try and consciously choose products that either don’t use plastic or use plastic that can be disposed of properly (recycled).

When plastic is recycled, it is transported to a sorting centre where it will be sorted, shredded and then melted and formed into pellets which can then be used to make other products.

Littering

It’s quite clear that littering any material, especially plastic, will have a huge impact on the environment.

What’s more, even if you litter someplace far from the ocean (which you shouldn’t be doing anyway!), your plastic litter can still make its way into an ocean or another body of water.

Here’s how:

Plastic is a very lightweight material, which means that it can easily be carried by wind or by rain into a river. Once there, your plastic litter will move along with the river until it eventually reaches a larger body of water, like an ocean or a lake.

And, even if you litter in built up areas like cities, your plastic will still be extremely harmful for the environment. Rainwater and wind can carry your plastic litter into a storm drain, which flows into a river, and then eventually flows into the ocean.

Storm Drain
A Storm Drain

There’s a very simple way to prevent plastic entering the ocean from our litter—simply stop littering!

Make sure to always put your rubbish into a garbage bin (or into the recycling if possible). If there isn’t a trash can nearby, hold onto your trash until you can properly dispose of it.

Or, even better, just stop using plastic and single-use products altogether! Use reusable alternatives to plastic, for example, and stay away from products with a lot of plastic packaging!

Fishing industry

Surprisingly, fishing nets account for a whopping 46% of the ocean’s plastic, with over 640,000 tons (about 580,000 metric tonnes) of lost fishing gear going into the ocean each year.

It isn’t uncommon for fishing vessels to dispose of fishing gear into the ocean when it isn’t being used anymore, and fishing gear can also be lost during storms or fishing accidents.

Abandoned fishing gear not only contributes to our growing plastic problem, but it also poses a huge threat to marine species like turtles, dolphins and whales.

In 2016, there were a reported 71 cases of whales caught and trapped in abandoned fishing gear just off the U.S Pacific coast alone, according to Mercy for Animals.

Ghost fishing net tangled on a coral reef
Fishing Net On Reef / Photo courtesy of  Tim Sheerman-Chase CC BY 2.0

When nets are abandoned in the ocean like this, they are often referred to as ‘ghost nets’ as marine life can find it hard to spot and avoid them, therefore trapping them and often slowly killing them.

There isn’t much you can do to avoid this type of plastic going to the ocean. However, by reducing your fish consumption or removing it from your diet altogether, you would no longer be contributing to the industry that is responsible for this.

From our Beauty Products

There are a range of beauty products like face washes, body scrubs, and even toothpastes that contain microplastics and microbeads.

Microbeads are small plastic beads, which are usually added into cosmetic products to enhance their cleansing capabilities. An example of microbeads (red) in toothpaste is shown below:

Toothpaste with red microbeads in it
Toothpaste with red microbeads in it

When you wash microbeads down the drain, the tiny pieces of plastic can bypass the filtration system within your wastewater treatment plant (due to their small size).

Without properly being filtered out, these microbeads are then released with the supposedly “treated” wastewater into a body of water, like a lake or an ocean.

Read More: How Do Microplastics Affect The Environment?

If you’re looking to reduce your plastic contribution, you should avoid purchasing any products that contain microbeads or microplastics.

Governments in many countries have banned the use of microbeads in beauty products, but it’s always best to check the label or look for organic and eco-friendly products that pose little or no harm to the environment.

Products that are flushed

According to the Marine Conservation Society 8.5% of litter found on beaches comes from items that are flushed down the toilet, such as wet wipes, tampon applicators and more.

Recent research by a British wastewater company revealed that 93.9% of survey participants were confident they knew what they could and couldn’t flush. Yet, 14.1% of participants admitted to flushing wet wipes, 8.6% of people said they flushed sanitary towels, and 10.6% reported flushing tampons, applicators and wrappers.

Many of these items can cause large pipe blockages for homeowners, or ‘fatbergs’, which are masses of non-biodegradable solid waste products tangled together.

You should only ever flush the 3Ps: Pee, Poo and Paper (toilet paper). Any other items should be thrown in the trash bin.

If your town/city does not have a wastewater treatment plant (this is usually not the case), then the trash you flush down the toilet could be directly dumped into the ocean.

However, even if your sewage is treated, the blockages that you cause by flushing non-biodegradable items could still enter the environment if a pipe bursts. While this doesn’t mean your flushed items will definitely enter the ocean, this does mean that the environment will be polluted nonetheless.

Conclusion

There are a variety of ways that plastic pollution can enter the ocean, but it all stems from our own, human behaviour.

From abandoning fishing gear in the ocean, to littering, or washing microbeads down the drain, our small actions can have a huge negative impact on the environment.

The easiest way to reduce plastic pollution is to just stop using plastic altogether.

You can start off by buying reusable alternative to single-use plastic items. For example, instead of using bottled water, use a reusable water bottle. Instead of using single-use plastic bags, use reusable bags.

In addition, you can also avoid buying products with microbeads, and products with excessive plastic packaging.

By making these small changes to your lifestyle, you can rest assured that your plastic contribution to our ocean is kept to an absolute minimum and your overall environmental footprint is reduced.

About the Author: Jennifer Connelly

Jennifer (Jenny) Connelly is the content writer for the drainage company UKDN Waterflow (LG). She is passionate about the environment and sharing tips on how people can reduce their impact on our planet. She also loves cooking and is a keen yogi.

Edited By: Hugh

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share
Tweet