Littering of the sea is a significant problem, and plastic is a serious and large part of this. Animals are dying, and microplastics have been found in humans. How extensive is this littering, and what can we do?
- What is plastic?
- What is the problem with plastic?
- What are the sources of plastic waste?
- What can happen?
Plastic is a material of fundamental importance in modern society. It has numerous uses, from the packaging of food on store shelves to clothing and consumer electronics. It is at all difficult to imagine today’s society without plastic.
Plastic was invented in the 19th century, but plastic products have only been common in the last 50 years. Since 1950, a total of around eight billion tonnes of plastic have been produced, and production is increasing rapidly. Half of this has been made since 2004. Every year, more than 300 million tonnes are produced annually – equivalent to 900 buildings the size of the Empire State Building, and it is expected that production will continue to grow in the years to come.
Plastic materials have properties that make them very useful in many contexts. But they also have a long shelf life and are heavy to break down in nature. This means that plastic products often become a littering problem, such as when the shopping bag ends up in nature, or when the lenses are thrown in the toilet instead of in the rubbish bin. This creates great challenges. These are partly visual – littering is not nice to look at. On the one hand, they are much more serious, such as when a seal wraps itself in ropes that someone has thrown or lost at sea, or when a tormentor carries a plastic bag instead of jellyfish. Globally, it is estimated that more than 10 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the sea every quarter of a year. This corresponds to more than 27,000 tonnes per day.
2: What is plastic and what is it used for?
There are countless plastic products that are used for a myriad of different purposes. Plastics are mainly made from oil, and about six percent of the world’s consumption of oil goes to this production. This roughly corresponds to the consumption of the world’s aviation. The production of plastic is thus also a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
Different plastic products have different properties. The largest group of products is packaging, which comprises around a quarter of the total production. This is often a product intended for single use and is therefore used as waste after use.
Plastic is today used in the manufacture of a wide range of products. The main reason for this is that plastic is cheap, durable and strong in relation to weight. It can therefore advantageously replace, for example, metal. 15 percent of today’s cars are made of plastic material, and the aircraft manufacturer Boeing’s new Dreamliner consists of about half plastic. A wide range of clothing is also made of plastic, such as goretex jackets and fleece sweaters. Consumer electronics such as PCs and mobile phones contain a lot of plastic. In addition, plastic is available in microscopic sizes in cosmetics, toothpaste and many other products we use every day.
3: What does the plastic problem consist of?
The core of the plastic problem is that most things are thrown away – they are only used once. This, combined with the fact that the plastic is hardly broken down in nature, creates major problems. It is estimated that it will take 450 years before a plastic bottle breaks down. Thus, over time, we get a huge accumulation of plastic waste. Researchers have calculated that of the eight billion tonnes of plastic produced since 1950, around 5 billion tonnes – more than half – are for garbage. If this were a 70 meter high landfill, it would extend over 57 km2, similar to the Manhattan district of New York City.
Unfortunately, much of this rubbish ends up in the sea. It is estimated that as much as around 10 million tonnes of plastic find their way there annually. Accumulated over time, it is estimated that around 150 million tonnes of plastic now float on or stay in or under the water masses. Most end up on the seabed. Plastic has been found even in the deepest sea area on the planet, deeper than 10,000 meters.
Will distinguish between plastic, microplastic (less than 5 mm) and nanoplastic (less than 1 micrometer, or 0.001 mm). While plastic waste is easily visible, microplastics and nanoplastics are more difficult to see and therefore have not been the subject of much attention until recently. Over time, the plastic in the lake wears out into smaller pieces and becomes microplastic. There is also a significant supply of microplastics to the sea through products that contain microscopic plastic particles, such as toothpaste, detergent, measurement and wear of car tires.
4: What are the sources?
One finds plastic in all oceans, partly in large quantities. Large collections of plastic rubbish have been found in so-called gyres in the Pacific Ocean, an area where ocean currents meet and bring rubbish together in large concentrations. Plastic has even been found in the Arctic Ocean – a study showed that one liter of molten ice contained 234 particles. In the Norwegian sea area, it has been proven that there is over 200 pieces of rubbish per square kilometer, and plastic is the largest category within rubbish.
About 80 percent of the plastic in the sea comes from sources on land, while the rest comes from other ship traffic and fishing activities. According to itypejob, more than half of the plastic waste comes from five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. The main reason why these countries stand out is the large population, rapid economic growth and lack of or inadequate waste management. Thus, plastic waste is not taken care of and reaches the sea via rivers and other land-based sources.
The rubbish is not evenly distributed in the sea – in areas with a lot of business activity and a large population density, there will often be greater concentrations of plastic rubbish than other towns. It is southern Asia that has the largest accumulation of plastic pollution.