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May 14, 2019

Plastics: It’s time to give our oceans a break and consumers and communities a choice

Single-use plastic fork settled on a coral reef


We are awash in plastic. Plastic has become ubiquitous in our lives. It is used in the packaging for our food, fruit, bottles, medication, cutlery, bins, tennis balls, furniture, t-shirts, sleeping bags, computers, carpets. You can’t avoid it. The New York Times recently devoted an article, “Life Without Plastic is Possible. It’s Just very Hard” to document the extreme measures required by consumers seeking to give up plastics – as illustrated by the piece’s subtitle: “Going plastic free starts with cloth bags and straws. Suddenly you’re…making your own toothpaste?” Currently, consumers and other parts of our society including towns, colleges and other organizations are not being given plastic-free options. Instead, they are living with the consequences of the choice by large corporations to switch their supply chains and production lines increasingly over to plastic.

More plastic was manufactured in the previous decade than in the whole of the last century and it is leaking into our seas at an alarming rate. Reports estimate that the equivalent of a garbage truck worth of plastic is now dumped in the oceans every minute and is having a dramatic impact.

  • Plastic debris has been found floating on the sea surface, washing up on the world’s most remote coastlines, melting out of Arctic sea ice, and sitting at the deepest point of the ocean floor. It’s everywhere. (Sources: Lavers and Bond 2017; Peeken et al. 2018; and Chiba et al. 2018).
  • Tens of thousands of individual marine organisms—from zooplankton and fish to sea turtles, marine mammals and seabirds—have been observed suffering either from entanglement or ingestion of plastic permeating the marine environment (Source: Gall & Thompson 2015).
  • Scientists estimate that over half of the world’s sea turtles have ingested plastic debris—a mistake that can be fatal (Source: Schuyler et al. 2013).
  • Experts estimate that 90 percent of seabird species have ingested plastic, and that this will increase to 99 percent by 2050 (Source: Wilcox et al. 2015).
  • After assessing the effect of plastic waste on 124,000 reef-building corals from 159 different reefs in the Asia-Pacific region, scientists found that the likelihood of disease increased from 4 percent to 89 percent when corals were in direct contact with plastic debris (Source: Lamb et al. 2018).


And, we don’t know the long-term impacts that ingesting plastic will have on marine life. Plastic is known to bind to toxic chemicals and, unfortunately, these problems and the growth of plastic and plastic pollution show no sign of abating. Plastic production is projected to increase fourfold by 2050. We have a literal tsunami of plastic heading our, and the ocean’s, way.

Discussions addressing the plastic problem most often center around the last of the three Rs, the recycle part of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, with calls for us – consumers and citizens – to recycle better and more (even as more and more plastics enter our lives). But this is quixotic. Recycling does not effectively reduce the flow of plastic into our seas and it wrongly places the burden of the problem on the consumer. If only consumers did a better job at recycling, we would recycle more and therefore have less plastic pollution – right? Not necessarily.

Plastic bottles, usually made from virgin plastic, if recycled, become textiles or polyester for things likes clothes and carpeting. Very rarely are they used to make plastic bottles again. Recycled plastic does not have the same performance and quality characteristics as virgin plastic. For example, a plastic bottle created from recycled plastic may be cloudy. This change in the quality makes the use of recycled plastic limited.

Plastic is designed to be recycled a finite number of times –often just two or three – and therefore has a useful lifespan of a limited time (a year, a decade, etc.) while taking hundreds of years to degrade and essentially never biodegrading. In a recent study, scientists estimated that of all plastics produced just nine percent had been recycled and only ten percent of that plastic had been recycled more than once. Plastic bottles take on average 450 years to degrade, with some plastics taking as many as 1,000 years. And, again, the “degraded” plastic becomes bits and pieces that persist for eons in our seas and environment (because there is nothing in nature that will effectively break down the bits into their component parts).

The use of virgin plastic grows by four percent every year. This means that if, even by some herculean efforts, we as consumers and citizens buckled down and got recycling rates to double by 2030, there would still be far more plastic entering the ocean than now. The net is that we cannot – in practical terms – recycle ourselves out of this problem. If the bath is overflowing, we don’t immediately mop up the water, we first turn off the tap.

We need companies to recognize that they are selling us products made of what is essentially a toxic pollutant. It is why it is critical that companies focus on reducing and not just recycling plastic. And, it is why it is crucial that consumers, citizens, universities, towns and other organizations be given plastic free choices rather than the false hope and guilt created by recycling.

Oceana is the largest conservation group in the world focused exclusively on saving the oceans, and we intend to begin making this call wherever we work. Our oceans can feed a billion people every day but only if we look after them properly. We hear constantly from our supporters and others that they want to reduce their plastic consumption but don’t know how because they don’t have easy choices. It is time for all of us to demand the companies and governments provide these choices and make real steps towards reducing plastic use to dissipate the future tsunami of plastic headed our way. We need to do this for our oceans and our future.

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