The ocean plastic problem

Ocean plastic is a problem that we still lack knowledge about. Especially when it comes to what impact plastics have on aquatic ecosystems.

On this page, we have collected information about the ocean plastic problem from recognized sources to shine a light on the challenge we face.

Plastic waste in Freetown, Sierra Leone

©Engineers Without Borders

14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year

Source: IUCN
Photo: Riverbed in Sierra Leone. Engineers Without Borders (OPF member)

Plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris

Source: IUCN
Photo: Recovered plastic from Hanstholm Havn

Plastics are found inside 90% of seabirds

Source: PNAS

The economic costs of marine plastic pollution is estimated to be 6-19 billion USD each year

Source: UNEP
Photo: CleanSeabed (OPF member)

What is ocean plastic waste?

Ocean plastic waste is litter made of plastic that makes its way to the ocean. Some of the most common examples of plastic waste are cigarette filters, plastic bags, food wrappers, and derelict fishing gear.

These are all made from very different types of plastic, the most common being PET (polyethylene terephthalate), HDPE (high-density polyethylene), and PVC (polyvinyl chloride).

Recovered ocean plastic waste is often in a very bad state, due to sun exposure, erosion, etc., making it difficult to recycle.

Why does it matter?

Plastic waste is a grave challenge with negative impacts on the biodiversity of our oceans, human health and the economy.

According to a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report from 2021, plastics and microplastics in the ocean have many lethal and non-lethal consequences for the marine life. These consequences are often a result of entanglement, smothering or collision with larger pieces of plastics, but also the ingestion of micro plastics with potentially harmful chemicals. Thus, ocean plastics may impact the entire food chain and lead to increased mortality, physical damage, and reduction in biodiversity.

For example, a study published in PNAS has indicated that plastic can be found inside 90% of seabirds and according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report, marine waste in the form of derelict fishing gear contributes to increased mortalities in a wide variety of marine organisms and is especially damaging to endangered and protected marine species.

The 2021 UNEP report indicates that marine litter and plastic pollution pose a risk to human health in various ways, including direct physical or mental harm. This can be through collision or entanglement with the plastic or through exposure to potentially harmful chemicals in the plastic, and ingestion of micro plastics through consumption. However, the health impacts of micro plastics are still uncertain. Moreover, the report shows that the presense of ocean plastics have negative impacts on human mental health.

UNEP further estimates the economic costs of marine plastic pollution concerning its impacts on tourism, fisheries, and aquaculture, together with other costs such as those of clean-ups, to have been at least USD 6-19 billion globally in 2018.

How big is the problem?

There is still much we don’t know about the exact amount of ocean plastic waste, but according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris and at least 14 million tonnes of plastic waste end up in aquatic ecosystems each year. Estimations from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) expect this number to rise to 23-27 million tonnes by 2030.

Because of ocean currents, the plastic gathers in accumulation zones with a higher concentration of plastic pieces. These accumulation zones appear in the Northern and Southern Atlantic Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Northern and Southern Pacific Ocean.

Where does it come from?

The vast mojority – 70-80% – of the plastic in our oceans is estimated to come from land-based activities, where the plastic is transported to the sea through shores and rivers. The remaining 20-30% of the ocean plastic stem from activities at sea, such as derelict fishing gear, ropes, and plastic fractions from abandoned vessels. New research estimates that 81% of the World’s ocean plastic comes from one continent, Asia, where especially rivers in the Philippines and Indonesia, India and China lead large amounts of plastics out in the ocean.

What can we do?

Fighting the ocean plastic problem is inseparable from the way we produce and handle our resources and waste. Part of the solution is to pave the way towards a circular economy, as opposed to the current linear model, where we extract raw material, produce products that are consumes and discarded. A circular economy is an economy in which all resources, including plastics, are part of a cycle, where the value of materials and products are preserved as long as possible instead of ending up at the landfills and incineration plants.

Ocean Plastic Forum seek to contribute to the transition by removing plastic from the oceans and upcycle as much of the plastic as possible to new products in commercially sustainable value chains where participants compliment each other’s competencies and in collaboration find solutions and business models.

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