5 Most Polluting Ocean Plastic Products
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Ocean plastic products have infiltrated marine life — but that’s the only place it’s found. Plastic is now so far-reaching, scientists have rendered it unavoidable, appearing where many wouldn’t suspect, such as remote mountain regions.
Recent studies found that 43.7 kilograms (kg) of nanoplastics per square kilometer (km) get deposited in the Swiss Alps annually. The findings are alarming since just 1 micrometer of plastic can be highly toxic to the body and bloodstream.
Nevertheless, plastic products have posed the greatest risk to marine habitats and aquatic species. This guide will break down ocean plastic products and ways you can help reduce plastic pollution.
Our Plastic Pollution Problem
Globally, people have consumed nearly 400 million tons of plastic yearly since the early 2000s. New reports show that recycling rates dipped below 6% in the United States in 2021 — meaning most of our plastic waste ended up in the ocean.
Plastic is so prevalent that scientists have found it in 100% of sea turtle species and 60% of seabirds. Plastic ingestion could cause severe problems for marine and shoreside animals, such as gastrointestinal issues, poor nutrient absorption, and feeding difficulties essential for survival.
Unfortunately, ocean plastic products take a long time to decompose. Some plastics take over a thousand years to break down — and when they do, they become microplastics.
Early studies on microplastics concentrated on microbeads in cosmetics and beauty products. As the plastic beads enter waterways through drains, oceanographers estimate nearly 15–51 trillion microplastic particles on the ocean’s surface.
However, microplastics have been discovered elsewhere in the sea, air, and food. It’s even possible adults and children ingest over 100,000 microplastic specks daily.
Plastic pollution threatens endangered wildlife in marine ecosystems, such as mangrove forests and coral reefs. Approximately 2,141 species have encountered plastic products in their natural habitats.
Should trends continue, researchers predict ocean plastic products will triple by 29 million tons yearly by 2040 — nearly 600 million tons of plastic annually.
5 Most Common Ocean Plastic Products
Plastic pollution travels hundreds and thousands of miles across the ocean — the Global Pacific Garbage Patch is perhaps the most well-known marine plastic pile-up spanning 1.6 million square kilometers, equivalent to three times the size of France.
Considering where plastic appears in everyday life and how we consume it, it’s no wonder we’ve ended up with a dire ecological travesty. Here are the five most common ocean plastic products that have polluted the world’s seas.
1. Single-Use Bags
Researchers have explored very little of our oceans, yet one place they’ve studied several times is the Mariana Trench — the deepest part of the sea located in the Pacific just east of the Philippines.
In 2019, Victor Vescovo made a record-breaking expedition, reaching 35,849 feet beneath the waves — what he found there shocked many. Among new discoveries of amphipods, spoon worms and pink snailfish, Vescovo and researchers came across plastic bags.
Single-use plastic bags are commonly used to carry groceries to and from the store, yet they’re one of the most common ocean plastic products in marine debris.
Plastic bags are harmful to aquatic species. Sea turtles, in particular, often mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish, ingesting them or getting entangled.
Like single-use plastic bags, plastic bottles are just as popular. It’s convenient to grab a cold bottle of water while running out the door or hydrating after a workout — but how often do you recycle them? If today’s recycling rates are evidence, the answer is probably not often.
People recycle only 25% of plastic bottles — the rest end up in landfills, on the side of the road or in waterways.
Bottles and bottle caps are hazardous to the environment and curious species that ingest them, taking over 450 years to decompose.
With little regard for environmental impacts, the mass production of straws began in the 1960s. Since then, people have overconsumed and improperly disposed of plastic straws daily.
Straws are small enough for several shoreline species to ingest. Scientists have even discovered that a mere 14 pieces of plastic in sea turtles is enough to induce a 50% risk of dying.
In 2018, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws, yet straws continue to be widely used globally. Even with more food service companies and restaurants, such as Starbucks, providing biodegradable straws or no straws, there’s a way to go before we can control plastic straw consumption.
4. Food Wrappers and Containers
Food wrappers and to-go containers are also typical ocean plastic products found in the water or washed up on the beach.
Although eating out at restaurants is still popular, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted dining habits to online ordering, delivery and takeout. Now, despite restaurants reopening, 15% of consumers intend to order takeout more than before the pandemic.
However, food wrappers and plastic containers will increase ocean pollution with more people ordering out instead of dining in or cooking at home.
5. Synthetic Ropes
The commercial fishing industry has long been a significant contributor to plastic pollution. In fact, synthetic ropes are one of the top ocean plastic products floating out at sea.
A recent study found that aging synthetic ropes release 20–31 times more microplastic fragments per yard when dragged through the ocean — with particle amounts increasing the older the equipment is.
Marine ropes that are two years old shed about 720 fragments per meter, while a 10-year-old rope can shed 760 pieces.
How You Can Reduce Ocean Plastic Products
Seeing that humans have caused ocean plastic pollution, it only makes sense that they hold the key to reducing it.
You can help reduce plastic pollution by committing to reusable products and limiting single-use plastics. Also, improving recycling behaviors will ensure ocean plastic products end up where they’re supposed to, rather than landfilled or in the environment.
Additionally, volunteering in beach cleanups and ensuring you throw away your own litter while visiting the beach will protect marine wildlife and avoid worsening our pollution problem.
Save Our Seas From Plastic Pollution
Society’s overconsumption of plastic products and low recycling rates are direct sources of ocean plastic pollution. However, we can save our seas and marine wildlife by adopting zero-waste lifestyles and reducing plastic use.
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About the author
Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.