Hawaiian monk seal, ocean, plastic
Marine debris throughout the ocean puts endangered species like this Hawaiian monk seal at risk. Photo credit: NOAA

In the foreseeable future, the weight of plastic trash in the ocean will be greater than the weight of all fish.

Already it’s been estimated by researchers that virtually all shellfish, and one-quarter of all fish, contain traces of plastic.

Every year about 300 million tons of plastic are produced and eight million tons wind up in our oceans. That’s the equivalent of over 500 trillion plastic water bottles. If you were to stack these bottles one on top of the other, you would be able to make two full trips from Earth, to the Moon and back.

But the problem is not only the millions of water bottles humans consume and discard each hour, but also the plastic we cannot see.

Microplastics are considered to be any piece of plastic that is under five millimeters in length. This also includes small particles like fabric and the plastic microbeads used in facial cleansers.

These particles are found in our oceans, on our beaches, and pretty much anywhere else there’s water.

Danger to Humans


The plastics that wash up on our beaches or end up in massive floating garbage patches come from bottles, bags, containers, straws, shipping materials and other quick-use products that break down over time and in turn become a home for harmful substances.

“Toxic chemicals adhere to plastics very easily,” Emily DiFrisco, Director of Digital Strategy of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, told WhoWhatWhy. “Even in the ocean, PCBs, DDT, pesticides, flame retardants, mercury and other organic pollutants can be absorbed by plastic in the ocean.”

DiFrisco, whose group aims to halt the tide of plastics that make their way into the environment, added that the chemicals pass into animals we consume and, as a result, enter our bodies.

It is believed that these chemicals can be found in almost all humans, including newborn babies.

We as producers, consumers and disposers, are directly to blame. More than half the plastic we use everyday, according to the Plastic Oceans Foundation, is used only once.

plastics, ocean

Infographic from NOAA depicting the various ways plastics end up in the ocean and form clusters of dangerous marine debris. Photo credit: NOAA

Plastics that enter humans can cause cancer, liver damage and reproductive problems. The chemicals disturb the way human organs function and can create a plethora of health issues. Fish who ingest plastics are more than likely experiencing health issues as well. By eating those fish, we are taking on their issues, and creating more for ourselves.

Plastics are not the only pesky material being dealt with; microfibers from clothing also have been found in marine life. When we do laundry, small fibers come off our clothes. They are far too small to be caught in filters, and wind up being washed out into open waters, where the fibers are mistaken for food or algae and eaten by fish and the smallest creatures in the ocean. They then make their way through the food chain and eventually, wind up killing the marine life that consumes them — or on our dinner plates.

Scientists are conducting studies to try and figure out how exactly these toxins are affecting marine life, how much plastic an animal has to ingest for it to start being affected — and how much it has to ingest for it to affect us. They also want to know the true extent of the plastic problem, and how much it has already harmed our planet.

Five massive patches of garbage reside in our oceans. One in particular — the Pacific Garbage Patch — now is twice the size of the state of Texas; over five hundred thousand square miles of the Pacific ocean are covered in a layer of plastic. Granted, these patches are not solid islands of garbage, but, they are substantial enough that they cover large sections of the ocean’s surface.

How to Reverse This Deadly Trend?


So what can be done about this problem?

“There are a number of different approaches the government could take,” says Tisha Brown, an oceans campaigner for Greenpeace UK. There is a fair amount of speculation and controversy as to whether we can make drastic enough changes to the way we live that we could repair the damage that we have done — and nurse our Earth and its creatures back to health.

Microbeads, plastics, ocean

Small plastic pellets also known as microbeads or nurdles; widely used in manufacturing. Photo credit: gentlemanrook / Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Though pollution is a formidable problem, many individuals, companies and organizations are making efforts to bring about change. In 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Microbead Free Waters Act to force cosmetic companies to remove microbeads from their products. By next July, products containing microbeads will no longer be sold in stores in the United States.

Many other countries are attempting to reduce the amount of plastic consumption. Indonesia has stated that it will be reducing the amount of plastic it uses by 70 percent by the year 2025. Uruguay will introduce a tax on plastic bags in stores — Canada has already enforced such a tax.

This year the United Nations even declared “war” on the trillions of pieces of plastic in the sea.

The United States is not one of the 10 countries that joined this campaign.

The United Kingdom also has not joined the campaign, but it has imposed a ban on microplastics stronger than any other country in the world: microbeads are banned there and citizens have been urged to use less plastic.

“To achieve a fully comprehensive ban covering all products that go down the drain, we need companies to be much more transparent about when their products contain harmful microbeads,” Louisa Casson, a campaigner for Greenpeace UK, told Independent Online.

Restaurants are among the many public places that are joining the fight to reduce the amount of plastics we use, for example by joining the “Refuse the Straw” campaign.

The Plastic Pollution Coalition says that every day in the United States, there are an estimated 500 million plastic straws used, mostly one time only. Almost all of these are likely disposed of in the wrong way.

Though many attempts have been made to clean up our planet and recycle materials, Tisha Brown from Greenpeace says this is not enough.

“Recycling should always be a third choice when dealing with waste, after reducing and reusing, and those two superior options need to be prioritized,” Brown told WhoWhatWhy.

She also states that “ditching single-use disposable items in favour of durable, reusable alternatives,” should be the main focus of consumers and producers of plastics alike.

Albatross, plastic, beach

Laysan Albatross looks curiously at a pile of disposable cigarette lighters. Photo credit: NOAA

“Ocean plastic pollution is a global emergency, it is everywhere from the Arctic Ocean at the top of the world, to the Mariana Trench at the bottom of the Pacific,” Brown states.

“We ALL can do something to stop plastic pollution and it’s toxic impacts on animal and human health, our oceans and waterways, and the environment,” says DiFrisco. “Take the first step by thinking reusable and not ‘disposable.’ Bring your own bags to the market, refuse plastic straws when you order a drink, and bring your own reusable water bottle.”

Hawaii: A Plastic Paradise


Hawaii’s geographical location has made it a magnet for plastics lingering in the Pacific. Almost all of Hawaii’s coastlines have debris coating their once pristine sands; the Northern beaches in particular are taking the brunt of it. The Department of Land and Natural Resources did a study on Hawaii’s main islands’ beaches that found more than 20,000 pieces of plastic scattered across the sand.

The state maintains that, though its beaches are far from clean, most of the trash that winds up on Hawaiian shores comes from the US mainlands, or from visitors. Companies around the world, after all, go to Hawaii and purchase the fresh water there to sell to customers — indicating that Hawaii has no problem taking care of its resources.

To try and keep up with the seemingly endless amounts of garbage that collect on their shores, residents have created the Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii organization. This organization is “inspiring local communities to care for their coastlines through hands-on beach cleanups.”

Kamilo Beach, Hawaii

Plastic debris on Kamilo Beach located on the southeast coast of the island of Hawaii. Photo credit: Plastic Pollution Coalition / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

On a cleanup on the main island of Hawaii’s beach, Kamilo, in November of 2014, 35 people collected over 3,000 pounds of plastic in a single workday — fishing nets, toothbrushes, kitchen materials, buoys from fisheries, bottle caps and almost 7,000 other miscellaneous pieces of plastic.

But as quickly as volunteers pick up the trash, more of it washes right back up.



Plastics are not a new threat to our environment and our lives, and they certainly are not going away. They have become a part of our everyday lives and sadly, have become part of us as well. So the next time you use a straw, finish a bottle of shampoo or toss that plastic bottle into the trash, remember — that may not be the last time you see it.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from beach (Susan White / USFWS).

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3 years ago

I go back 45 years ago, and recall the attempts to ban nonreturnable pop bottles and force softdrink companies to return to glass-returnable bottles(there was no such thing as buying cases of bottled water back then!).

There were other attempts besides the rollback of plastic pop bottles to deal with what was already a growing plastics crisis much, much more recognized in the mainstream media than it is today! Another major one was the demand that all plastics used for packaging and food items be biodegradable, so we wouldn’t have a crisis in our oceans today……so WHAT HAPPENED?

At some point, mainstream environmentalists are going to have to come to terms with what looks like a simple and unavoidable fact: capitalist economic systems cannot be made sustainable or environmentally friendly for a multitude of reasons including this one!

All the talk of proposing taxes and other endpoint efforts to discourage all the waste producing throwaway plastics, are easily undone every time someone links the tax with rising product costs and then it’s back to square one again!

john brown
john brown
3 years ago

People don’t care; plus the Pacific is now microplasticised + radiated byFukushima forever; it’s so insane and heart breaking because
1) no body gives 2 s***s and
2) it is irreversible – short of having Superman turn back time by circling the earth really fast counter its rotation.

You will have every piece of irreducible plastic (it’ll get down to plankton and smaller levels but it won’t disappear) now carrying particles with varying half-lives, anything from hours to billions of years; longer than the age of the solar system; and its never going to end.

3 years ago

I have read elsewhere that a huge percentage of the plastic swirling around out there comes from four countries: Vietnam, Indonesia, (Mainland) China, and the Philippines. Anyone confirm or deny? If this is true then maybe the answer lies in bringing about a change in their throw-it-in-the-river cultures. And maybe it’s time for international law to recognize aggression-by-negligence, the way that the common law long ago recognized that throwing refuse on others’ property constitutes a nuisance and a trespass.

Oh and there are startups now working on harvesting plastics out of the Pacific.

Geoff Botting
Geoff Botting
3 years ago

A very sad reflection on human indifference and ignorance on the impacts we all cause to innocent marine and terrestrial organisms. We are just so selfish.

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3 years ago
Reply to  Geoff Botting

The #1 brainwashing effect of 20th century capitalism has been to equate the economic system run by a tiny minority of benefactors with the entire human race. So, blame for climate change and the plastics crisis are all offloaded on the commons….just like they do with all their industrial wastes! It’s not like we’re given a vote on whether or not to destroy the environment by our political systems that select our candidates from centrist parties with carefully vetted candidates offered for our approval.

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