a sea otter in ocean plastic.

A sea otter interacts with ocean plastic pollution. Photo: Douglas Croft

The Inertia

Editor’s Note: This feature is presented by our partners at Ocean Conservancy.

Hundreds of miles from the nearest shoreline in the North Pacific Ocean, currents bring plastic debris together into what’s known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — actually two massive collections of litter, one near Japan and the other between Hawaii and California. Fishing gear, shoes, and tiny microplastics all mingle here, turning the water into a garbage cocktail. Even more trash is suspected to be littering the ocean floor in these areas. 

Scientists estimate that 11-million metric tons of plastics enter the world’s oceans annually, the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute. 

“Sadly, that number is projected to grow if we keep operating at the same pace,” said Nick Mallos, the Vice President of Conservation for Ocean Plastics at Ocean Conservancy. The trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone is two times the size of Texas.

Researchers seem to find plastic fragments everywhere they look: from the bottom of the deepest ocean trenches and the shores of remote islands, to the Pyrenees mountains and frozen Arctic ice sheets. And it’s not just far-off areas being choked with plastics. “Microplastics are in our food, in our water, and even coursing through our veins at this point,” Mallos said.

Ocean plastic floats in the water.

Ocean plastic floats in the water. Photo: Rich Carey//Shutterstock

What Does the Ocean Conservancy Do?

The plastic bottles and caps you spot floating in the waves or littering the shoreline or the side of the road on the way to the beach all add up. That’s where Ocean Conservancy comes in: working to protect oceans for future generations by tackling big problems like climate change, offshore drilling, and plastic pollution, among other things. 

Follow a plastic bottle to its origin, and you’ll find fossil fuels. “In some ways, the plastic pollution and the climate crises are one and the same,” Mallos said. All but one percent of plastics are made from oil and gas, extracted from the environment and refined into what are called petrochemicals. 

The extraction and manufacturing process is so energy intensive that the plastics industry contributes more to the greenhouse gas emissions warming our planet than the aviation and shipping industries. 

Toxic chemicals used in, and produced by, the plastic production process contaminate nearby communities. Over 200 plastic and petrochemical plants emitting carcinogens along an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana have earned the area the nickname “cancer alley” because of the astoundingly high rate of cancer among people who live there.

a man cleans up ocean plastic

A volunteer with Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup picks up ocean plastic in Trinidad and Tobago. Photo: Ocean Conservancy

The Problem with Single-Use Plastics

But the problem with plastics isn’t just with how they’re made, Mallos said. It’s how they’re quickly discarded. Forty percent of all plastics are single-use products, meaning they’re only used once, or only for a few minutes, before being thrown “away.” 

“As someone who has been to some of the most remote ocean places on this planet, I can assure you that ‘away’ does not exist,” Mallos said. 

Single-use plastics are proliferating, and more than half of all plastics ever made have been created in the last 20 years. Waste collection and recycling systems haven’t, and never will, keep pace with the plastic boom. Items like plastic bags, straws and takeout containers are the most commonly found items on beaches and in waterways every year during Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. 

Abandoned or lost fishing gear is another key, but lesser known, source of plastic pollution in the ocean. The majority of modern fishing gear is made of plastics, and if they’re lost at sea, they just keep shedding microplastics — something Mallos called a “nightmare” for wildlife and our greater planetary ecosystems.

How Does Ocean Plastic Spread?

Plastics’ lightweight nature means they tend to easily blow, drift, or float into the environment once they get into the great outdoors, they don’t biograde, or break down. They just fracture into smaller pieces of micro or nanoplastics, becoming a permanent hazard to wildlife that might mistake them for food and choke on them, or get trapped or entangled by them. 

Turtles get straws stuck in their nostrils; whales are found dead with instant ramen packets in their stomachs, sea birds choke on balloons. Scientists have even coined a new term, plasticosis, to describe the deadly inflammation that happens in an animal’s intestines once it eats sharp plastic pieces.

The trillions of pieces of microplastics in the environment create a cycle that leads right back to us. They’re directly ingested by the fish we eat. They evaporate with ocean water into clouds and rain down elsewhere, entering our bodies through the air we breathe and the water we drink, and landing onto the soil that grows our food.

Mallos dives in a coastal area

Nick Mallos on a survey dive in Saint Helena. Photo: Ocean Conservancy

Plastic Pollution — A Multi-Faceted Problem

A new study from Ocean Conservancy and the University of Toronto shows that the average American adult could ingest as many as 3.8 million microplastics a year from protein sources alone – and that includes seafood as well as terrestrial protein sources like chicken, beef, and even tofu. Ew! 

It’s past time we get plastic pollution under control. While recycling might feel good — we’ve been conditioned to do it since childhood — it is only part of the solution. 

“Recycling alone cannot and will not solve the plastic pollution crisis,” Mallos said. The variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and formats of plastic make items difficult to recycle efficiently and effectively, plus, some aren’t designed to be recycled at all. “We need to drastically reduce how much plastics we’re making and consuming to really have an impact, and clean up what does get out into the environment. We need all three pieces.”

Mallos and his kiddo enjoy some beach time

Mallos and his kiddo enjoy some beach time. Photo: Nick Mallos

In 2022, Ocean Conservancy helped write and pass one of the most ambitious pieces of plastics legislation internationally that does just that. 

California Senate Bill 54 is projected to reduce plastics production by 23 million tons — equivalent to 26 times the weight of the Golden Gate Bridge — over the next 10 years. It also requires all packaging to be recyclable or compostable. Other governments need to follow California’s lead by legislating and incentivizing companies to make fewer plastics, and ensure any plastic that is made is actually recyclable.

Nick Mallos and his son exploring the tide pooling.

Nick Mallos and his son exploring the tide pools. Photo: Nick Mallos

What Can You Do to Make a Difference?

But don’t sit around waiting for someone else to make a change, because our everyday choices add up, too. Buy your food in bulk when possible to reduce extra packaging. Carry a reusable coffee cup and a reusable water bottle. Better yet, invest in a set of travel cutlery! And don’t forget to skip the straw when you order beverages. 

Know what can and can’t actually be recycled in your community by checking with your municipality. Avoid primary microplastics, like glitter or scrubbing beads in cosmetic products, and launder your clothes less and in cold water to release fewer microfibers from your favorite fleece. Follow plastic pollution efforts in your community (like bag bans) and sign up for Ocean Conservancy’s action alerts to make your voice heard. 

If you’re out on the water, or just spending time on the beach, it’s up to you to leave your environment a little cleaner than when you first arrived. Try “taking five” — scan your area for five seconds to make sure you’ve taken everything you brought off the beach with you. Then, take five extra trash items you find that aren’t yours!

Download the Clean Swell app to record the items you clean up to help Ocean Conservancy and other conservation partners influence decision makers to do more to protect our oceans. And when you leave, make sure to dispose of the items you collected properly. If a trash bin is overflowing, stash your trash until you get home. 

Reducing plastic trash today through these simple actions might just mean less plastic in the ocean tomorrow, and for years to come. Future generations of surfers and wildlife alike depend on it. 


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