Featured, Ocean Plastic

What’s Being Done about Ocean Plastic Pollution?

November 13, 2019

Learn about active initiatives with our Essentials of Ocean Plastic Pollution course

Material that escapes our waste management system and pollutes our ocean is known more broadly as marine debris. A significant portion of marine debris is made up of plastic. This poses a particularly challenging problem, as plastic does not break down quickly or completely. While plastic is an incredibly useful material, it does not belong in the environment. To know how we can prevent and solve the problem of plastic pollution entering our oceans, it’s worth first understanding the scope of the problem and how plastic ends up in the ocean.

Our Essentials of Ocean Plastic Pollution course equips you with foundational knowledge to be able to join active initiatives working to address the problem of ocean plastic pollution.

(from the Essentials of Ocean Plastic Pollution course)

What’s the scope of the problem? 

Marine debris causes a number of serious impacts to the ocean and its inhabitants,more than just being an eyesore. In addition to damaging habitats in coastal areas and coral reefs, marine debris can result in economic losses for tourist destinations. Animals may become entangled in marine debris, which can cause abrasion or suffocation. There may also be toxicological impacts from ingesting marine debris that are still being understood. Estimates vary, but depending on the type of plastic and the environmental conditions, it can take hundreds of years for plastic objects to break down, meaning plastic can cause these impacts for an extended period of time. 

Microplastics are a particular concern since they are very small and can easily enter the food chain. Ingestion of microplastics has been demonstrated in over 100 marine species. The toxic effects that animals experience after consuming microplastics can travel up the food chain and affect humans. A broad range of environmental and social impacts is examined in Essentials of Ocean Plastic Pollution course.

How does plastic end up in the ocean?

Plastic enters the ocean through a number of pathways. Plastic can enter the ocean when people dispose of waste in or near waterways that lead to the ocean, when fishing nets are abandoned at sea, when pellets during plastic manufacturing spill into drains, as well as when polyester fabrics are washed in washing machines

The Ocean Conservancy estimates that at least 80% of ocean plastic comes from land-based sources. The five countries that contribute more than half of ocean plastic pollution are in Asia. However, more than 25% of leakage starts outside of Asia. Indeed, every country in the world contributes to marine debris, either directly leaking waste into oceans, or indirectly, by leaking waste into rivers or exporting waste to countries that do leak directly into the oceans.

How might we address ocean plastic pollution?

Focusing on efforts to find solutions, our Essentials of Ocean Plastic Pollution course examines strategies that industry and government have proposed for managing and preventing plastics in the ocean. One approach is to retrieve plastic from waterways, beaches, and coastlines, which is easier than recovering plastic from the ocean itself. These “ocean-bound plastics” have been used in many different packaging and durable applications. The course highlights several examples of companies successfully incorporating ocean-bound plastic material into their packaging. 

The course debunks common myths about what would solve plastic pollution. It discusses the problems with marine degradable plastics and biodegradability additives and the challenges with cleaning up oceans already polluted with plastic. 

There are many strategies to turn off the tap of waste flowing into the oceans, including financing to improve infrastructure. By one estimate, $26 trillion is needed in Asia for all types of infrastructure improvement – everything from roads and bridges to waste management – from 2016 through 2030. As part of that, improving waste management and recycling infrastructure in Southeast Asia would make it possible to reduce plastic leakage into the ocean by 45% (Circulate Capital and Stemming the Tide, 2015). 

Ocean plastic pollution may be widespread, but it isn’t inevitable. Start learning more about the problem and the many active initiatives working to prevent plastic from entering the oceans with our Essentials of Ocean Plastic Pollution course. 





This course is part of the Essentials of Sustainable Packaging training program. Courses are available online on-demand with a one-year subscription, and special discounts are available for SPC members.