The Plastic Plague: Exploring the Impact of Single-Use Plastic on Our Oceans

You’re out and about, enjoying your day when you get thirsty, and a bit peckish. Maybe you pop into a variety store and grab a bottle of water and a small bag of chips to hold you over. When you’re done, you take a glance for a recycling bin, but don’t see one nearby so you toss the empty plastic bottle, along with the plastic bag into the bin, never to be seen again. But where does this plastic waste go from there? How does it impact the immediate environment and wildlife? And how is it affecting our oceans? Could the decision to use single-use plastics come back to haunt you?

These are questions that are unlikely to cross your mind in that instant, but they are very important to consider. It’s easy to just chuck things into the garbage or recycling and watch them get hauled away in trucks. But the journey of single-use plastic doesn’t end there. In fact, it will be around much longer than you will. If we continue to consume single-use plastics at the rate we currently are, our oceans could be in serious danger.

The rising problem of single-use plastic

Plastic bottles, straws, and plastic bags are examples of single-use plastic products. They are typically made from petroleum which is converted into everyday items which count for roughly half of the 300million tons of plastic produced each year. Other examples include plastic drink stirrers, plastic cutlery, plastic cups, balloons, balloon sticks and plastic packaging.

In total, plastic waste from both land sources (mentioned above) and sea sources (mainly abandoned fishing nets and defunct finishing paraphernalia) make up 80-85% of marine litter. 10% of the plastic that litters our waterways is from fishing gear, while 90% of total marine plastic waste comes from land-based single-use plastic sources.

Only 9% of plastic waste is reportedly being recycled and only 12% incinerated. That leaves 79% to landfills and other forms of waste management and litter. The vast majority of these will inevitably find their way to the ocean. What to one person is an innocuous bottle, straw, and plastic bag eventually compounds to over 14 million tons of waste per year ending up in the ocean. This is a monumental amount of waste that could take centuries to fully decompose, sometimes up to 400 years.

This is because petroleum-used plastic is non-biodegradable and does not decompose the way that regular materials do. Instead of decomposing, plastic only breaks down thanks to solar UV radiation, wind, wave action, and other natural phenomena into microplastics (particles smaller than 5 mm) or nano plastics (particles smaller than 100 nm).

How single-use plastic ends up in our waterways

As we established earlier, most of the litter found in the ocean flows from land-based sources. The major route of this waste accumulation is through tributary rivers that pick up garbage as they pass rural and urban cities and eventually cascade into the oceans. In terms of sheer volume, the 10 most polluted rivers alone supply 90% of the garbage that makes it to the ocean helped also by rainwater which washes poorly managed waste off streets and roads even from farther inland through canals. The majority of these plastics are eventually broken down into micro and nano plastics and also emit by-products of plastic production.

Another major contributor to marine litter is litter from fishing ships and boats commonly called Ghost gear. Abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear especially but not limited to fishing nets, ropes, and lines make up between 10-20% of marine waste. Ghost gear was found to contribute to 52% of the Great Pacific garbage patch (the world’s largest floating island of plastic). 

Marine waste mostly remains around coasts and beaches but can also be found in far removed areas from where the waste is generated thanks to ocean currents and winds.

A common example of this is Henderson Island which despite being uninhabited and isolated between New Zealand and Chile has been found to have the highest density of trash in the World with debris reaching the island from Russia, the United States, Europe, South America, Japan, and China.

How single-use plastic impacts the ocean

The problem with marine waste is more than just the quantity of debris but also the impact that the waste has on aquatic life and, by extension, human life.

The impact on marine life

The most glaring consequence for aquatic life is the number of animals that get entangled in and suffocate on the plastic that litters the oceans. Small and large fish alike get caught in discarded fishing nets in a phenomenon called ‘ghost fishing’ and end up dying from the suffocation and stagnation from the resulting entanglement with derelict fishing gear.

Regular and endangered species of Fish, Turtles, Dolphins, and Whales are in constant danger of being unintended prey to fishing apparatus with no handlers with as many as 914 different species of aquatic lifeforms suffering as a direct consequence of plastic waste in their habitat.

Apart from getting entangled, aquatic animals are also in danger of ingesting plastic waste which can then cause starvation as a result of lack of nutrients from ingested plastics, a blocked digestive tract, accompanied by a diminished appetite, and altered feeding behavior. For example, a 15ft 1,100-pound cuvier beaked whale washed up on the Davao Gulf of the Philippines with 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Ingested plastic could also cause organ damage in the affected animal which could lead to serious medical conditions including death.

The impact on seabirds

Many seabirds have swooped to get their fill of nice-looking prey only to suffer the gripe of ingesting plastic instead. An estimated 41% of bird species have ingested plastic either accidentally in place of food or accidentally with food. The possible effects of this are also damaged internal organs, starvation, and possibly death.

The impact on humans

When Plastics are broken down into microplastics and industrial by-products and then ingested by fish, they could pose a significant health risk to humans who consume these fish or aquatic lifeforms. While microplastic has not yet proven to be directly corrosive or harmful, materials typically used in producing most single-use plastics are believed to contain endocrine disruptors such as Bisphenol A (BPA) and Phthalates which when ingested “can cause significant developmental and biological effects and even at low amounts, and can alter the body’s sensory systems and lead to health problems.”

Polyethylene which is used to make plastic bags as well as polystyrene which is the main ingredient in making food packages have also both been suspected of causing liver damage in adults

In addition to this, Vinyl Chloride (VC) a known animal and human carcinogenic is also one of the by-products of defragmenting plastic, precisely those made with Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). This puts people in riverine areas where the polluted water is in close proximity and fish are the main source of nourishment at great risk of contracting chronic illnesses.

Beyond the health aspect, marine waste is a source of nightmares for fishermen who have to wade through piles of debris and compete with ghost gear to find an adequate quantity of fish not hampered by the filth in their immediate surroundings. These fishermen are also at risk of suffering damage to their boats and injury to their persons, potentially incurring debts and financial losses.

There is also a thought to be spared for the environment and the effects that the production of single-use plastics (which is made from fossil fuels like petroleum) can have on the climate. In a 2015 study, 24 ethane cracker facilities, essential for the production of plastic in the United States, had the combined carbon output of 3.8 million passenger vehicles. Its greenhouse gas emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year by 2030 — equal to adding nearly 300 new coal-fired power plants— even as the need to curb global climate change becomes more urgent.

The impact on our beaches

Marine waste can also have a negative impact on tourism as litter clusters deter tourists from visiting beaches and coastal areas. In a study of recreational and regional economics in coastal areas, it was found that recreational activities were severely hampered by an increase in beach debris over the course of the study resulting in an estimated $414million loss in revenue and concurrent loss of 4,300 jobs in the affected region. A country or region that solely depends on its tourism for its GDP would fall into fiscal ruin should it encounter a significant rise in coastal debris.

How to reduce your single-use plastic consumption

Now that we know the magnitude of the problem facing us, what are some ways that we can curb the current issues around plastic pollution in the oceans caused by single-use plastics?

Invest in a reusable water bottle

Single-use water bottles are some of the biggest offenders when it comes to plastic ending up in our waterways. The best way you can avoid contributing to additional waste is by investing in a reusable water bottle. Having one reusable bottle of any material drastically cuts down the number of plastic bottles in usage as one person doesn’t have to purchase multiple single-use plastic bottles of water but can rather dispense water from a central point like a water dispenser or a faucet into a personal bottle that can be carried for different occasions like work, school, and the gym. On top of that, you’ll never have to spend money on a water bottle again. With everything from collapsible bottles to reusable coffee mugs, you can make a huge difference by making the switch.

Always take reusable bags

Approximately 300 million plastic bags end up in the Atlantic ocean per year. This is an unsustainable amount of plastic waste that can vastly change if more people make the slight modification of planning shopping trips with reusable bags made of cotton and non-woven polypropylene. This helps to reduce the number of used plastic bags in use and therefore in the ocean. Stores can also incentivize the use of reusable bags to drive the adoption of reusable bags in their local communities.

Avoid takeaway food

Not only will home-cooked food help save money, but as recently as 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 69% of food packaging-related waste was landfilled, tallying an estimated 10 million tons of waste that could potentially become marine waste. It may not be possible to completely cut out takeaway/fast food, but it would be wise to look for restaurants that have alternatives to plastic packaging.

Buy in bulk - and take your own container

Avoid buying items in individual packaging that could have been packed in a single package. Endeavor to buy in bulk including pooling orders for food and groceries and transporting them together.

Re-use Single-use plastics

Items like plastic cutlery, cups, plastic bags, takeaway food Tupperware, and bottles can be reused when possible, as opposed to throwing them away immediately after first use. This helps to cut down on the number of new single-use plastics in circulation.

Switch to shampoo bars, soaps, and conditioner bars

Shampoo, soap, and conditioner bars are often without packets or a packaged in paper packets rather than plastic. They are much more suitable for reducing plastic waste than their liquid counterparts packed in plastic bottles that end up as waste in oceans. Having no packet means zero waste and a paper packet is easier to decompose than plastic and would be easier to get rid of. As an added bonus, they are also easier to travel with as they don't have the same travel restrictions that liquid bottles have.

Buy things second-hand

Clothes, shoes, bags, or household items almost always come with packaging and tags containing plastic. Plus, they were likely shipped in packaging as well and used a variety of harmful resources from product creation to the moment you buy. By purchasing items second-hand you won’t be contributing to additional plastic waste, and reduce the amount that ends up in the ocean as a result. And as an added bonus, second-hand items will always be cheaper!

Your actions are important

If measures aren’t put in place to curb the current situation, it is estimated that the plastic pollution in the ocean will triple in weight and there will be more plastic per kg than fish by 2050. This is certain to happen unless you decide to take a step and modify your plastic usage as well as stir up conversations that will enlighten the people around you. You can do this by sharing articles like this one and encouraging those around you to make changes. Leading by example, such as carrying your reusable water bottle, can inspire others to take action. Remember if individual actions could cause a problem, then individual actions can go a long way to solve it as well.