Plastic Pollution a Pervasive Problem

Examples of plastic marine debris. Photo: NOAA Marine Debris Program, Flickr CC.
Examples of plastic marine debris. Photo: NOAA Marine Debris Program, Flickr CC.

Plastics, due to their moldability, strength, and durability, are useful for a wide variety of uses and have become ubiquitous in modern life. However, these characteristics are also why plastics are pervasively problematic for the environment.

New research indicates that the problem of marine plastic pollution is far greater than previously thought. A prior estimate of five trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans is now considered to be grossly underestimated.

Plastics found on beaches worldwide and the five large floating garbage patches (including the well-known Great Pacific Garbage Patch, roughly the size of Texas), show us only what’s on the surface, however. It’s estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic per pound than fish in the oceans. Last year, microplastics were found in sediments and the stomachs of deep sea creatures in the bottom of the Mariana Trench, proving that plastic pollution has contaminated even the deepest parts of the ocean.

Plastics never completely biodegrade like organic products do—they break down into smaller pieces of plastic, which is not better with regard to marine systems. Microplastics are defined as plastic pieces less than 5mm in size. These sinister pieces of plastic degrade from larger pieces due to sunlight and UV radiation (a process known as photodegradation), wave pressure, or biological activity. In addition to degrading from larger pieces of plastic, microplastic pollution also comes from microbeads (tiny plastic beads in hygiene products such as body wash and toothpaste), industrial materials such as plastic pellets, fibers from fleece and other synthetic fabrics, and macerated solid waste, like shredded tires.

Because of their small, ingestible size, microplastics in water are easily confused with zooplankton and are consumed by sea life. The plastics then move up the food chain as smaller prey are consumed by larger predators. Birds and other sea life also mistake plastics  for food, and then die from starvation with plastic-filled stomachs. Microplastics are also being consumed by humans from eating seafood.

A disturbing statistic by the New York Times in 2011 states that “About 300 million tons of plastic is produced globally each year. Only about 10 percent of that is recycled. Of the plastic that is simply trashed, an estimated seven million tons ends up in the sea each year.” Other estimates indicate that only five percent of the world’s plastics are recycled.

Only a few types of plastics are easily recyclable. In order to recycle plastic responsibly, it’s important to check the number inside the recycling symbol to ensure that your local recycling facilities accepts that particular type of plastic. Too many non-recyclable or contaminated items in a bale can cause it to be rejected and sent to the landfill.

The problem is further complicated by a recent policy change regarding the shipment of plastics and other recyclables to China for processing. Once the destination of much of the world’s recycling, as of January 1, 2018, China has banned the imports of some types of recycling, including plastics, and implemented strict contamination standards for others—standards that even cities that stand out as recycling leaders, like San Francisco, cannot yet meet. As a result, bales of recycling are piling up on storage lots or even ending up in landfills in some areas across Europe and the U.S. due to the lack of enough alternate processing destinations.

Recycling should be considered a last resort when it comes to plastics. First, refuse to use plastic! Second, reuse it as much as possible. Check our website at for info on upcoming  Plastic Free July and Coastal Cleanup Day in September!