How Plastic Ends Up in the Ocean

Plastic pervades all environments on earth – making its way from our homes and businesses into the land and water. It endangers wildlife and global food chains and threatens human health. Unlike organic material, plastic poses a problem for our environments which sticks around. Plastic is not biodegradable – it will not break down for a very, very long time. This has created a massive crisis in the modern world.

The world’s annual consumption of plastic materials has increased from around 5 million tonnes in the 1950s to nearly 100 million tonnes today. Plastic is now found in every ecosystem on earth. It is found in huge ocean gyres, creating floating islands of trash. Micro-plastics pollute the world's marine environments. Scientists have shown that up to 12 million tonnes of plastic are entering our oceans each year – an amount that could fill a rubbish truck every minute!

Many of us are now aware of the problem and want to change things for the better. But solving the crisis of plastic waste in our oceans begins with an understanding of how it has been created in the first place. In this article, therefore, we'll take a look at how plastic ends up in the ocean in the first place.

Where Does The Plastic In Our Oceans Come From?

Approximately 80% of the litter in the seas comes from the land. But how does the plastic we use in our homes end up in the ocean? Industrial processes and factories are responsible for a proportion of plastic pollution. Poorly managed industrial and commercial practices are partly to blame.

But individuals and households also play a role in creating this problem. It is important to realize that almost all of us will contribute to this problem in some way. Individuals and households contribute to plastic pollution through:


One of the direct ways that plastic ends up in our waterways and oceans is through littering. Tourists leave plastic bottles and other picnic items on beaches or these are blown to the rivers or shores by the wind. However, while littering is a problem, most with an interest in green living and our environment will know to take their litter home. It is the less well known, and more hidden causes of plastic pollution that are the main problem.

Non-Recycled Plastic Household Waste

We can all do our bit by recycling whatever plastic waste we can. But recycling alone is not enough. Contamination can be a big problem. You might have washed out your plastic containers and put them in the correct bin, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else will too. If something hasn’t been washed out properly then it can result in everything in that bin going to the landfill rather than the recycling plant.

Most plastics generated through food waste etc. in our homes is not recyclable. Even that which is recyclable is often not recycled – sometimes due to contamination but often also for economic reasons. Often, recycling businesses simply do not find it profitable to recycle lower-grade plastics. That too can result in more plastic ending up in landfill.

Plastic on route to landfill, or at landfill sites can easily be dropped or thrown away, ending up in the environment. It is carried by wind and rain to our waterways, and much of it ultimately finds its way to the sea.

Plastic Down the Drain

Another way in which lots of plastic makes it from our homes into the oceans is through our drains. Microbeads in cosmetic products are one major source of plastic pollution. These are too small to be filtered out by wastewater plants and may end up in water that flows eventually back to the ocean.

People also flush plastic items such as wet wipes, cotton bud sticks or sanitary products, which can also make their way into the wider environment. Many people are unaware that certain products they are using contain plastic. They are oblivious to the potential for these items to make their way from their homes, down the drain and eventually, into aquatic and marine environments.

Another important source of plastic pollution of which many people are unaware of is fibers from synthetic clothing. When synthetic clothing is washed in a washing machine, plastic fibers will be washed down the drain. Outdoor gear, leggings, fleeces and jumpers made from acrylic and polyester, polyamide, spandex, and nylon shed up to 700,000 microfibres with each wash.

Driving a Car

Plastic items often erode as they are used, and tiny pieces of plastic will become detached and enter the wider environment. This is another source of plastic pollution. One example of this, which has a significant impact, is driving cars and other vehicles. Tires (due to friction on roads) create a huge amount of plastic dust. This is yet another reason when trying to live in a more sustainable and eco-friendly way, to drive as little as possible.

Of course, plastic also comes from commercial and industrial sources. Businesses and authorities also have important roles to play in reducing the plastic that ends up in our oceans. Waste coming from factories and other enterprises also accounts for a large proportion of the plastic waste that ends up in the marine environment.

But consumers who buy the products made by such factories and businesses are themselves directly contributing to the problem. In order to stop ocean plastic pollution, we must all withdraw our support for these damaging systems and lobby for sustainable change in this arena.

What Can We Do About Plastic in the Ocean?

The first thing that consumers can do is help to reduce the amount of plastic that is generated in the first place. We can:
- Refuse – to accept single use plastics and unnecessary plastic items.
- Reduce – our general consumption, and how much plastic we use and throw away.
- Reuse – whatever plastic we do bring into our homes for as long as possible.
- Repair – whatever we can to avoid having to buy new things.
- Recycle – choosing recycled plastics where possible to avoid new plastic generation, and recycling what we can both at home and through commercial and municipal recycling schemes.

Businesses can also help to reduce plastic in the oceans. They can also follow the five 'R's of sustainability. They can also:
- Take responsibility for plastic waste at all stages of their supply chain.
- Engage with consumers to accept items back at the end of their useful life, so they can be re-integrated into the system.
- Invest in new, better infrastructure to recycle plastic waste on-site or in the local community.

Finally, politicians and all those in positions of power have to legislate to reduce plastic production and plastic waste and to prevent it from making its way to the oceans. They can:
- Create marine conservation areas and other protected areas to protect marine wildlife.
- Impose penalties on those who release plastic pollution (and other pollutants) into the environment.
- Restrict the creation of new plastic, especially non-recyclable kinds.
- Incentivize companies and individuals to reduce, reuse and recycle.
- Invest heavily in infrastructure for recycling to make it easier.

It is only when consumers, businesses, and legislators all work together that we will be able to tackle the crisis of ocean plastics and clean up the mess we are making.