Ocean plastic pollution is seen by many as a key issue to address.
In this guide, we outline potential solutions to ocean plastic pollution, such as how plastic waste might be reduced and stopped from entering the ocean, and also, how it might be cleaned up.
Summary – Solutions To Ocean Plastic Pollution
There’s really two main solutions to ocean plastic pollution:
1. Stop or reduce plastic getting into the ocean in the first place, and
2. Clean up the plastic already in the ocean
Firstly, in order to stop or reduce plastic getting in the ocean – it makes sense to know, based on the numbers, where the most plastic waste is being generated, and where and how the most plastic waste is entering the ocean.
It also makes sense to know how to either reduce plastic waste generation, or contain/dispose/manage plastic waste (once it’s been created) properly to stop it leaking out into the ocean. Upgrading and making landfill sites secure and closed off in low to middle income countries may have the potential to provide the most significant reductions in plastic pollution, as well as upgrading their overall waste management systems. Beach and coastal cleanups can provide further help in preventing plastic from entering the ocean in most countries.
Secondly, cleaning up plastic already in the ocean can be a tricky and costly exercise. There are projects like The Ocean Cleanup removing plastic from surface water in some major ocean basins, but, it’s essentially impossible at this stage to effectively remove microplastics that have sunk below the sea’s surface to the deep sea, or that end up in the digestive systems of marine animals (and, most plastic in the ocean lies beneath the surface). So, although beneficial, the challenges of ocean clean ups should be taken into account.
Overall, of the 260 million tons of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the Ocean (plastic-pollution.org). This estimate is worth considering in ocean and coast plastic waste prevention and clean up efforts.
First, Understand The General Plastic Product, To Waste, To Pollution Cycle
In general, the cycle of plastic waste getting into the ocean is:
Plastic is produced/generated
Plastic is used
Plastic is disposed of, and becomes waste
Some plastic is littered, while the rest goes to waste management
In terms of waste management options – some plastic is recycled, but the vast majority ends up in landfill, with some also being incinerated.
Some landfills are well managed and most of the plastic stays in the landfill. But, some landfills are open or uncontained, and the plastic is lost or leaks from the land fill (known as inadequately disposed of plastic)
Mismanaged plastic (made up of inadequately disposed plastic, and littered plastic) gets into the ocean via several routes, such as wind or tidal transport, but rivers also play a big part, as well as waste water and stormwater runoff
Marine based plastic can be dumped or discarded straight off of fishing vessels as well (about 20-30% of ocean plastic comes from marine sources like fishing vessels, and the remaining 70-80% is from land based sources)
So, we can see that littered and inadequately disposed of plastic from land based sources, and then separately marine based plastic, are the two main sources of plastic waste that end up in the ocean.
Second, Understand Where The Plastic & Plastic Waste Is Coming From, & How It Gets Into The Ocean
Plastic comes mainly from (we may want to focus specifically on these sources of plastic and plastic waste i.e. these industries, countries, regions etc.):
Plastic waste by industry – the plastic packaging industry (ourworldindata.org) [i.e. a lot of the plastic is plastic packaging type waste, as opposed to say, construction plastic type waste]
Plastic waste by country – China produced the largest quantity of plastic, at nearly 60 million tonnes. This was followed by the United States at 38 million, Germany at 14.5 million and Brazil at 12 million tonnes (ourworldindata.org)
Per capita plastic waste by country – Kuwait, Guyana, Germany, Netherlands, Ireland, the United States (ourworldindata.org)
Inadequately disposed of plastic (one part of mismanaged plastic, which is material which is at high risk of entering the ocean) – high income countries have far lower rates of inadequately disposed plastic than middle and low income countries because of far more effective waste management [such as landfill sites that better contained and not open]. (ourworldindata.org)
Littered plastic (the other part of mismanaged plastic) – [there is] a rate of littering of 2 percent of total plastic waste generation across all countries [and this plastic is at risk of ending up in the ocean] (ourworldindata.org)
Total mismanaged plastic waste – a high share of the world’s ocean plastics pollution has its origin in Asia. China contributes the highest share of mismanaged plastic waste with around 28 percent of the global total, followed by 10 percent in Indonesia, 6 percent for both the Philippines and Vietnam. See other countries at https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution
Mismanaged plastic waste by region – East Asia and the Pacific lead all regions at 60%
Plastic mainly gets into the ocean in the following ways (we may focus on these ways and entry points specifically):
How & Where Plastic Gets Into The Ocean
Where Plastic Is Most At Risk Of Entering The Ocean Specifically – [Coastal populations within 50km from the coast line are where most of the plastic is at risk of entering the ocean] (ourworldindata.org)
Generally How Plastic Gets Into The Ocean – coastlines, rivers (carry plastic from inland to coastal areas), tides, and marine sources (fishing gear dumped directly from fishing vessels etc) are the entry points for plastic into the ocean. Aside from wind or tidal transport, waste water, and storm water, rivers play a key role in carrying plastic to coastal areas from inland areas.
Two of the most important factors in plastic waste ending up in the ocean are – proximity of [a] given population centres to the coast, and national waste management strategies (ourworldindata.org)
Most Plastic Polluting Rivers & Where They Are Found – The top 20 polluting rivers accounted for more than two-thirds (67 percent) of the global annual river input. Geographically we see that the majority of the top 20 rivers are located in Asia. The River Yangtze, the top polluting river, had an input of approximately 333,000 tonnes in 2015 —just over 4 percent of annual ocean plastic pollution. [the Ganges River in India and Bangladesh comes in second at 115,000 tonnes, and the Xi River in China third at 73,900 tonnes (ourworldindata.org)
Region That Leads Plastic Input Into The Ocean – [Asia by far leads plastic inputs to the ocean by region at 86%]
Marine Sources Responsible For Plastic Waste – Fishing vessels play a key role in discarding or dumping plastic into the ocean from marine based sources
Some of the information in this section comes from our ‘Plastic In The Ocean: FAQ Guide‘. It’s worth reading as a complimentary guide to this one overall.
Third, Focus On These Key Plastic Generation, & Plastic Waste Areas
We want to focus on:
Land vs Marine Plastic Waste
Land based plastic waste – 70 to 80% share of ocean based plastic. Mostly single use, short use, and highly disposable types of plastic. Mostly plastic packaging waste (from the plastic packaging industry, and used in other industries like food etc.)
Marine based plastic waste – 20 to 30% share of ocean based plastic. Mostly fishing gear and fishing equipment
Littered, Inadequately Disposed Of, & Dumped/Discarded Waste Waste
Littered plastic waste – 2%, on average, of a country’s plastic production
Inadequately disposed of plastic water – low to middle income countries, and less so high income countries
Dumped and discarded marine plastic waste – most intensively fished parts of the ocean
Entry Points Of Plastic Into Ocean
Entry points into the ocean – beaches and coasts (coastal populations usually within 50kms to the ocean), rivers, storm water and waste water run off
Countries, Regions, Industries & Parts Of The Ocean Where Plastic Products, & Plastic Waste Are Notable
Countries that produce the most plastic in total – China, and the US are leaders
Countries that produce the most plastic per capita – see above section
Industries that use the most plastic – plastic packaging is used across many industries as a single use, disposable plastic. And then, obviously, the fishing industry
Countries and regions responsible for the most mismanaged plastic waste – Asia (and East Asia and the Pacific). But, China, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam as countries
Countries and regions responsible for the most inadequately disposed of plastic waste – low to middle income countries
Countries and regions responsible for the most littered waste – there is an average of 2% across all countries
Countries that export the most plastic – not as prevalent as it used to be because China has stopped taking plastic. But, it’s worth looking at top countries exporting their plastic waste as they are essentially putting the responsibility for their plastic waste footprint on other countries
- Regions leading in plastic inputs into the ocean – Asia
- Region home to the top polluting rivers – Asia
- Global Plastic and other items that are found on beaches and coasts the most during cleanups (in order or most to least) – Cigarette Butts, Food Wrappers (from candy, chips etc.), Straws, Stirrers, Forks, knives, spoons, Plastic beverage bottles, Plastic bottle caps, Plastic grocery bags, Other plastic bags, Plastic lids, Plastic cups, plates. (oceanconservancy.org).
Fourth, Understand How We Can Stop/Prevent Plastic Getting Into The Ocean Based On Our Focus Areas
Management Of Plastic Waste
We wrote about what might be the most effective way to stop ocean plastic pollution in this guide:
In summary – it’s estimated that up to 80% of mismanaged plastic that is at risk of entering the ocean could be prevented in the future if waste management systems across the world ( in low to middle income countries specifically) are upgraded and improved to function at an effective level. Securing landfills and making them closed off instead of open (to prevent plastic leaking/loss) is one example. But, better waste collection, recycling, waste incineration, and less littering would also be areas of focus. Beach and coastal clean ups also help with reducing littered plastic.
Reduce Usage Of Plastic, Or Reduce Plastic Waste
It’s arguable that we should be reducing the amount of plastic we use in the first place as well. There are many solutions for doing this, on the individual, industry/business/producer and innovator, and governmental and policy maker levels.
Read more on these solutions at https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics
Something else that needs to be discussed is what we do with plastic waste, and discarded or recovered plastic. There’s several waste management options, but each has a different economic cost and level of economic feasibility. For example, it’s easy to say to recycle plastic, but many plastics can only be recycled a certain amount of times, and recycling revenue is variable. TheConversation.com has a good breakdown on the market for recovered plastics at https://theconversation.com/ocean-cleanup-wont-turn-a-profit-but-we-should-still-do-it-104097
Other Reduction Methods
Some sources indicate plastics are getting into the ocean via rivers which have plastic fibres from textiles and clothes that we wash in them.
To combat this, some sources suggest this partial reduction strategy:
- [people can change their] washing practices – fewer microfibres are shed when clothes are washed at low temperatures, in a full washing machine and with no tumble drying – is one approach that could help, while it has also been proposed that improving filter technology in washing machines is a solution that should be explored. (wwtonline.co.uk)
… it is not realistic to ban synthetic clothing, which accounts for around 60 per cent of clothes produced globally, and measures that manufacturers could take to reduce the shedding of microfibres, such as making clothes with less blended material and tighter yarns, are also seen by many as prohibitively expensive. (wwtonline.co.uk)
Fifth, Understand How We Can Clean Up Plastic Already In The Ocean & On Beaches/Coasts
In The Ocean
We can focus on cleaning parts of the ocean, usually gyres and ocean basins, where the most plastic congregates and collects:
- Parts of the ocean where the most plastic congregates and gathers on the surface – basins in the Northern Hemisphere had the highest quantity of plastics. The North Pacific, Indian Ocean, North Atlantic ocean basins have the highest amount of surface plastic mass (https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution – under the section ‘where does plastic collect in the ocean’)
It’s important to note though that removing plastic from the ocean is not a cheap nor usually and economically feasible exercise (a kilo of recovered plastic might only be worth about 30 cents), so, prevention of plastics entering the ocean might be where we focus more attention on first as opposed to clean up.
On Beaches & Coasts
We can continue to clean beaches and coasts, and even scale up clean ups. But we can also focus on minimising the waste of some of the most common plastic items that are found during cleanups at the producer and consumer levels:
- Global Plastic and other items that are found on beaches and coasts the most during cleanups (in order or most to least) are – Cigarette Butts, Food Wrappers (from candy, chips etc.), Straws, Stirrers, Forks, knives, spoons, Plastic beverage bottles, Plastic bottle caps, Plastic grocery bags, Other plastic bags, Plastic lids, Plastic cups, plates. (oceanconservancy.org).
3. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]