As of 2019, about two trillion pieces of plastic are in the North Pacific Ocean alone. To add to that, an incredible eighty percent of all marine waste, whether on the surface or deep in the sediment, is made up of plastic.
How does all of this plastic waste wind up in our oceans? Read on to learn more about ocean-bound plastic and what you can do to help.
What is the problem with plastic waste?
Unlike food, paper, and other organic waste, plastic is a strong material that doesn't easily break down. As a result, once it enters our oceans, it can affect the health and well-being of all marine life.
Powerful waves and sunlight break down plastic waste near areas of water into smaller pieces called microplastics. Marine mammals then frequently ingest the microplastics, which collects in their digestive systems over time. Some studies have shown that this affects certain species' ability to grow and make energy, while others lose the ability to absorb essential nutrients. What's even worse is that plastic debris can take up toxic industrial chemicals already found in our oceans. Unfortunately, these factors can lead to the death of many of our extraordinary ocean creatures.
How does plastic enter our oceans?
Every community is at risk of polluting our waters with plastic, even from far away. Throwing plastic in the garbage, littering, and flushing plastic products are all actions that contribute to our ocean plastic problem.
Wind and rain can carry both littered plastic and plastic dumped in unmanaged landfills into sewers and waterways. Small amounts of plastic in flushed materials go undetected in water treatment facilities. Eventually, this plastic flows into our rivers and ultimately into the ocean.
Unfortunately, ocean plastic doesn’t make for strong, resilient, or high-quality recycled products. As mentioned before, once in the water, plastic gets degraded by strong ocean currents, salt water, and UV exposure. The properties of the plastic material change and it becomes fragile, it can shatter, and it may even change color. This indicates a change at the molecular level of the material.
This is where ocean-bound plastic comes in
Jenna Jambeck, a professor from the University of Georgia, coined the term "ocean-bound plastic" in 2015. While researching the disposal journey of a variety of waste products, Jenna found that most plastic waste doesn't even reach our oceans.
So, ocean-bound plastic actually refers to any plastic material that has a high risk of entering our oceans. It's usually found within 31 miles(50km) of shorelines and near regions with poor or nonexistent recycling management.
Here's the good news: ocean-bound plastic is recyclable! Before entering our oceans, single-use plastic like bottles, containers, and other soft plastics can be collected and transformed into Post-Consumer Resin (PCR), a type of recycled plastic since they haven’t suffered the degradation that plastic that has been in the ocean for months or years has.
How is it done? First, discarded plastic is gathered from rivers, near shorelines, and other nearby areas. Next, the plastic is transported to processing facilities where it is organized based on the type of material. Once cleaned and disinfected, the plastic is broken down into small flakes and pellets. The resin pellets are then melted down and injected into molds to create recycled products like activewear, household items, toiletries, accessories, and of course, suitcase and backpacks!
What can be done to reduce ocean-bound plastic?
Prevention is key to stopping plastic waste from polluting our oceans.
Local and national governments should get more involved to ban the use of single-use plastics and ban companies from manufacturing or importing them. Several countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, Kenya, and Bangladesh have already implemented programs to reduce single-use plastics.
Recycling awareness, education, and programs should be in place in coastal regions so that from the get-go, plastic is disposed of properly.
Try to cut down on single-use plastics and products with microbeads and try to participate in organized beach cleanups in your local towns or around the world. You can also support companies that are working towards solving the world's plastic problem.
We at Solgaard are thrilled to work with a network of partners to tackle the plastic waste crisis. So far with our collaborators, 600,000 lbs of plastic have been removed from our waters and upcycled into our sustainable travel gear.
Written by Arista Caldera