plastic pollution
Education,  Learning Resources

A Beginner’s Guide to the Plastic Pollution Plaguing Our Oceans

Across all corners of the world, plastic pollution plagues streams, rivers, and oceans. In many ways, it’s simply because everything’s connected. For instance, one piece of trash, no matter the size, can embark on a road trip from one side of the Earth to the other using waterways.

Strolling along the beach, you may find a brightly-colored shell—only to realize that it’s, in fact, a long-lost plastic bottle cap. Here lies a mere symptom of the ocean plastic crisis; this is only the surface of a much bigger problem. To truly grapple with ocean plastic pollution, you’ll have to dive deeper, maybe even to the abyssal depths of the ocean.

With this beginner’s guide, you can start your journey to understanding the grave extent of plastic pollution in our oceans. Furthermore, you can learn what organizations are doing to curtail ocean plastic pollution and ways you can minimize your own plastic consumption.

plastic pollution
Red plastic bottle cap littering beach | Photo by Brian Yurasits

The Rise of Plastics in Our Ocean

Take a second, and look around the room. What plastic items can you spot? When I look, I see a plastic hay bag for my guinea pigs, a plastic container of strawberries, and a plastic box of Magic the Gathering cards. Turns out, the more you look, the more plastic you might spot. It’s a ubiquitous product in our lives.

But, what exactly is plastic? To learn about plastic production, check out the video below.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, over 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean annually, posing a major health threat to marine organisms and people. For instance, marine organisms, such as sea turtles and shorebirds, can mistake these plastics for food and consume them. Unfortunately, plastic ingestion puts these animals at risk of sickness, starvation, and death. Furthermore, the toxic chemicals in plastic can bioaccumulate. As these toxins travel through the food web, they eventually find their way to our plates where they can wreak havoc on human health.

For more information and statistics on plastic pollution, watch this video.

Plastic Pollution Far and Wide

When plastic infiltrates our waterways, it must end up somewhere. We see plastics on the beach, but where does the rest go? One place people don’t often consider is the deep sea.

Recently, a study evaluated how currents impact the movement of microplastics in the ocean. According to this study, microplastics accumulate in submarine canyons, seamounts, and trenches. Moreover, this study postulates that 99% of all ocean plastics end up in the deep sea. So, where is the last 1%?

If you’d like to learn more about how microplastics affect the deep sea, give the video below a watch.

 “I keep hearing about a garbage patch, what’s that?” Well, this brings us to that last 1%.

As plastics enter the ocean, currents called gyres swirl plastic waste into “garbage patches.” Across the ocean, there are five gyres, and within each of these gyres, there are significant conglomerations of trash. Spanning from the surface to the ocean floor, these “garbage patches” cover a widespread area and contain plastics of all sizes, including microplastics.

To learn about one of the most infamous “garbage patches”—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—check out this video.

How to End Ocean Plastic Pollution

Today, a number of organizations work tirelessly to mitigate the impacts of ocean plastic.

For example, the non-profit The Ocean Cleanup plans to eliminate 90% of all floating plastics from the ocean by 2040. To do this, The Ocean Cleanup will remove plastic from the ocean using passive technology that mimics ocean currents. Lastly, The Ocean Cleanup will install solar-powered plastic extractors in rivers. In this way, these extractors will restrict the influx of plastics entering the ocean. According to their models, The Ocean Cleanup should be able to remove 50% of Great Pacific Garbage Patch debris over 5 years.

Other organizations, like 4Ocean, use proceeds to remove plastics from the ocean. For instance, 4Ocean pulls one pound of plastic out of the ocean for every product sold.

Some companies work to eliminate plastic production altogether. For example, Pela creates compostable phone cases, AirPods cases, smartwatch bands, and accessories. Today, Pela has prevented 507,550 pounds of plastic from polluting our waterways. By 2028, Pela hopes to eliminate 1 billion pounds of plastic pollution.

For more ways of reducing ocean plastics, take a look at the video below.

What Can You Do About Ocean Plastic Pollution

Being proactive about ocean pollution is key. To help curtail the rise in ocean plastics, consider the following steps.

1. Ditch one-use plastic items.

Even though that latte may sound tempting, one-use coffee cups are not as alluring. To reduce the number of one-use items you use, consider switching to multi-use items, like reusable coffee cups, water bottles, cutlery sets, straws, plates, etc… Fun tip: Mason jars work really well for food storage and are something I use on a daily basis.

Want to adopt a zero waste lifestyle? In that case, take a peek at eco-friendly shops, like the Zero Waste Store.  

2. Recycle items that can no longer be reused.

Try to get as much use as you can out of plastic items. However, when it is no longer safe to do so, please recycle these items appropriately. Make sure to research how recycling works in your community. That way you’ll ensure you’re taking the right steps.

If you happen to have used batteries sitting around, check out Call2Recycle for recycling locations.

3. Embrace minimalism.

Living on less can limit the impacts of plastic consumption. If that means spring cleaning, hosting a garage sale, or selling some clothes on Poshmark, I recommend cutting down in any way you can. Not only will it decrease clutter, but it’ll also help your items find a new life and get used to their fullest extent.

For more information about the minimalist lifestyle, tune into podcasts, such as the The Minimalists.

4. Shop at thrift shops and consignment stores.

Thrift shopping is another great way to cut down on the environmental costs of plastic consumption. Because clothing often involves a great deal of plastic packaging and labels, buying used clothes can decrease plastic waste.

Buy used, the environment will thank you for it.

5. The less packaging, the better.

It can be easy to block out exactly how much packaging goes into online shopping. Today, many people opt to shop from their couches, which, unfortunately, increases the circulation of plastic packaging and the potential for pollution. If you happen to be one of the many people with a growing pile of opened Amazon boxes, consider cutting down on online shopping. For example, try shopping locally or shopping for products that use paper packaging instead of plastic.

Perhaps, start with shopping at farmer’s markets and bringing your own bags. Additionally, try to purchase products with little plastic packaging, like hair shampoo and conditioner bars, re-usable paper towels, dish rags, etc…

6. Participate in a beach cleanup.

Lastly, cleaning up plastics at the beach can improve the health of local sea life and your community. To learn more about organizing a beach cleanup, check out resources, like the Ocean Conservancy.

Overall, we must strive to lessen our consumption and minimize our plastic footprint. To see what impact you can have on the lifetime of plastic, give the video below a watch.

If you’d like to be a leader in the fight against ocean plastic pollution, consider majoring in marine biology. To learn more, read this article about studying marine biology in college.

Maybe you’d like to work in marine biology research? In that case, read this article about undergraduate research.

Hi, I’m a San Diego-based blogger who's passionate about marine biology, finance, and science communication. Having recently graduated from UC San Diego with a bachelor's in marine biology, I am now working on a certificate in science communication. Over the years, I’ve worked in laboratory research and science outreach at aquariums, zoos, and environmental research centers. When I’m not writing, you can find me home brewing, tide pooling, skydiving, playing DnD, or hanging out with my two adopted guinea pigs. Reach out to me anytime, and follow Sand Dollar Wallet!


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