The side effects of plastic pollution are all around us — in our land, water, and air. It's not unusual to see pictures of seabirds with six-pack rings caught around their necks or dead fish and whales with plastic in their stomachs. This material has made a significant mark in human lives since its popularization in the 1950s, but it has also brought consequences.
Between 1.26 and 2.65 million tons (1.15 and 2.41 million tonnes) of plastic enter the ocean from river systems each year. This debris contributes to massive oceanic vortexes of plastic materials, otherwise known as gyres. One study found that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains over 87,000 tons of debris(79,000 MT), with this patch collecting material more quickly than surrounding waters. Some of the biggest waste contributors are single-use plastics.
Although the problem is significant, it's not undefeatable. At 4ocean, we work tirelessly to clean waste from the ocean and coastlines, and we aim to educate others on the harms of plastic. With an estimated 330 million tons of plastic waste (300 million MT) produced every year, it's more important than ever to find solutions.
By learning about some of the primary products driving plastic pollution, you can pinpoint areas of your life where you can lessen your dependence on single-use plastics. Remember that you don't need to decrease your consumption overnight. We believe in the philosophy, "nudge, don't judge," when informing others about ocean pollution and plastic consumption. The process will be gradual for most because of this material's tremendous presence in our lives.
The most important thing is knowing that small acts add up. Refusing one plastic bottle or straw may seem like a small action, but when millions take that same action, we can make a difference. Everyone's efforts contribute to the ongoing work of protecting the ocean.
Here is a list — in no particular order — of single-use products often found in global waters:
Plastic bottles often come up in discussions about the worst single-use plastic products, which is likely due to their pervasiveness. Even if you don't drink from plastic water bottles, you probably use them in other areas of your life — for your shampoo, coffee creamer, dish soap, and much more. In the European Union alone, people consume 46 billion beverage bottles a year.
Most bottles are macroplastics when they enter the ocean. However, as they break apart, they become easier for unsuspecting sea creatures to ingest. Sharp fragments can damage the digestive systems of animals who eat them. Synthetic surfaces can also become a breeding ground for marine bacteria — a process called biofouling — which exposes humans and animals alike to disease.
Clothes made from synthetic fabrics — like polyester and nylon — contain microfibers. Whenever you wash your clothes, the garments shed these tiny fibers, which then travel to the local water treatment plant after your machine drains the wash. Although the facilities can remove most of the threads, some amount always makes its way into the environment. Research from the University of California, Santa Barbara, revealed that synthetic garments release 1,174 milligrams of microfibers in the wash.
Additionally, fiber masses from top-load machines were significantly higher than those from front-loaders. You don't need to go out and buy a new washing machine, but it's a good idea to choose apparel consisting of natural materials like jute, cotton, and linen.
Try a reusable bag on your next shopping trip instead of plastic. Many curbside recycling programs refuse to accept plastic bags because they get entangled in the machines and slow down operations. The rare bags that do make it through don't lend themselves well to creating recycled products because of the material's flimsiness and low quality.
All the others that avoid recycling head to landfills, with some becoming roadside trash or ocean refuse. Your best bet is to give your plastic bags to a local grocery store for pickup and substitute reusable totes wherever possible.
Cigarette butts often fly under the radar when it comes to plastic pollution in the ocean, but these have been the number one item collected during beach cleanups for decades. Cigarette filters aren't biodegradable — they consist of a plastic called cellulose acetate. This material can take years to fully decay due to several factors, including its low nutrient content and its inaccessibility to microbial decomposers.
When these cigarette butts enter the ocean, the chemicals contained in them can leach out into the water. Just a few of these substances include nicotine, ammonia, lead, and arsenic. Marine creatures can ingest these tobacco products and sustain harm from these toxic compounds, as well as choke and suffocate on bits of the cigarettes.
Microbeads often come as exfoliating agents in skincare scrubs and body washes. They may be appealing and effective for your skin, but their effects on ocean habitats are undesirable. Once you wash these tiny pellets down the drain, they enter your water source and become virtually impossible to remove. Because of their size, microplastics are much harder to detect than bigger pieces.
Both humans and animals can absorb or ingest microplastics. Currently, there isn't a ton of research on the long-term effects of microplastic absorption. This phenomenon is relatively new and hard to track. However, allowing microplastic bioaccumulation to continue in marine animals could have major ramifications down the road.
Although straws are small, they're a major contributor to plastic pollution — you can find them in nearly any restaurant or eatery. They add an element of convenience and, for some people, they're a necessity. But their helpfulness disappears once they enter the environment.
Because of their lightweight quality, wind and rain can easily blow them out into bodies of water. Their slim design makes it easy for them to get stuck in an animal's nostrils or windpipe, which can spell injury or death. Additionally, their small and flimsy composition means they're never recyclable. Like plastic bags, they clog up the machinery used to process recyclable waste.
Abandoned fishing gear, or "ghost gear," has a unique spot on this list. Because people use fishing gear multiple times, you wouldn't consider it a single-use plastic. However, it still has an impact comparable to microplastics, bottles, and other single-use products.
This is because fishing gear can harm sea life months or even years after it enters the ocean. According to one study, fishing gear — along with balloons and plastic bags — is estimated to serve the biggest threat of entanglement for marine animals. Animals that become stuck in nets or traps end up as bait for predators, which also become ensnared while trying to hunt for prey.
The cycle continues, with more animals losing their lives to discarded gear, such as nets, lines, and traps. This equipment had lethal consequences for 25 to 50% of the seabirds included in the study. Creatures who find their way into these traps often die from suffocation or exhaustion while trying to escape. Along with entanglement, fishing gear poses a significant risk for ingestion and contamination from biofouling, though the effects of these are currently less understood.
Plastic packaging includes everything from potato chip bags to the vacuum-sealed wrapping on paper plates. Manufacturers use this material to protect goods because toxins and bacteria have little chance of accessing the product inside. However, this same characteristic contributes to its environmental impact. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and polypropylene (PP) are two of the most common plastics that manufacturers use for products, but they can be challenging to recycle depending on their composition.
Some waste management facilities may accept garbage containing these materials, but many do not. As a result, the waste goes to landfills, where it can enter water sources through stormwater runoff and other means.
Now that you're familiar with which plastics contribute to ocean waste, you can explore options for shrinking your consumption and protecting the planet. Take notes from what other people are doing to remove sources of plastic in their everyday routines, and see how you can implement those changes.
Reusable bottles are a popular alternative to plastic containers and offer much greater variety than plastic bottles. Many of them feature sleek designs and come in durable materials that stand the test of daily use.
Trade your disposable plastics for a sturdy thermos or tumbler, such as the 4ocean X YETI Rambler 20oz Tumbler, made from stainless steel. Stainless steel and glass drinkware has become a favorable substitute for toss-and-go containers.
Even if your reusable bottle is plastic, don't sweat it. It's better to reuse one plastic bottle multiple times than to send dozens to the dump each week.
Opt for naturally occurring materials instead of the usual nylon or polyester garments. Organic cotton is a great place to start, as it's a material most people already know and like. It's also grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or other harmful chemicals that affect waterways.
Wool and linen are two more suitable alternatives for both clothing and bedding. Linen has the extra benefit of being biodegradable, which reduces waste.
Grocery stores often encourage customers to buy reusable bags by selling them at low prices. Take advantage of the opportunity, and grab a few to bring on your next shopping trip. Alternatively, you can bring totes and containers from home.
Thai citizens got creative with their shopping methods after Thailand issued a single-use plastic bag ban in early 2020. Many brought crates, laundry bags, and buckets to carry their goods. You don't have to go this far, but a little creativity can go a long way.
Cigarette bans can be hard for governments to enact and enforce, which is why many legislators are taking different measures to combat cigarette butt pollution. Some cities are installing cigarette waste receptacles near high-traffic beach areas, while states like New York and California are considering bans on single-use filters. Prohibiting cellulose acetate filters would stop this plastic at the source, as tobacco companies would need to develop a new way to design their products.
Many cosmetics and skincare businesses are removing microbeads from their formulas and using other materials to get the same exfoliating effects. Standard substitutions include salt, sugar, and oats. Because these substances occur in nature and are easy to procure, you can make your own beauty products for additional peace of mind. Be mindful of any formulas that use crushed nutshells, though — these can scratch the skin.
Metal, bamboo, and paper straws have cropped up as solutions to the ever-recognizable plastic straw. Some companies have begun offering other options alongside plastic, while others have eliminated the material and use non-plastics only.
Selecting your preferred option is mostly a matter of what type of drink you plan to consume and what level of flexibility you need. Bamboo and wheat straws offer a biodegradable advantage — stainless steel and glass have less flexibility and function best with cold liquids.
Fishers can decrease the prevalence of ghost gear by experimenting with more sustainable fishing practices. Banning or redesigning specific types of equipment, as well as restricting fishing near vulnerable marine ecosystems, are a few ways for individuals and government officials to help.
Some fisheries are taking responsibility by promoting gear-labeling techniques, documentation for missing equipment, and improved equipment management. GPS systems may be used to locate lost gear by fitting equipment with transponders.
You've heard of cardboard, paper, and plastic packaging — now what about mycelium foam, bagasse, and seaweed? Although many alternative packaging options aren't yet mainstream, they're promising solutions to the plastic waste issue. Mycelium foam, which consists of mushrooms and agricultural waste, could be a suitable alternative to polystyrene styrofoam.
Because its materials are all-natural, it's biodegradable. Similarly, bagasse — which is a sugarcane byproduct — returns to nature after its life cycle ends. Producing it requires less chemical processing than other types of pulp, making it popular as a fiber source, and there's no need to source new materials. Seaweed is still getting off the ground, but the company Ooho blends it with other plant matter to create transparent, edible food packaging.
Even though many people are tossing around the idea of a Mars mission, it's safe to say Earth is our only livable planet right now. Filling its waters with single-use plastics and other pollutants contributes to its decline in health. Just a few of the problems the ocean is already facing include reduced carbon uptake, reef deaths, animal deaths, and marine habitat destruction.
The ocean absorbs 25% of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and releases oxygen. This phenomenon is favorable to the planet because it removes this gas from our air and sequesters it elsewhere. However, increasing ocean plastics — particularly microplastics — may harm the animals that transport carbon, like zooplankton. With fewer of these animals to play a role in carbon uptake, the chain may become disrupted, and more unsequestered carbon could populate Earth's atmosphere.
Plastic bags, shrink wrap, and other types of plastic film can smother coral and block them from receiving sunlight or nutrients. On the island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand, discarded fishing gear often damages corals and causes tissue loss, which can eventually lead to death from disease. Another typical cause of mortality involves corals becoming trapped by fishing nets and being buried underneath the sediment.
Coral polyps, seabirds, turtles, and many other animals can mistake debris for food and ingest it. The plastic's toxins, along with biofouling, can poison sea creatures and make them susceptible to disease or death. Adding to the hazards, some animals starve after eating plastic because their stomachs stay full, which deters them from eating. Without nourishment, they quickly perish.
A study of the Aleutian Islands revealed that the seabirds there had high levels of phthalates — a chemical that's common in plastic — in their muscles and eggs. Scientists are still unclear about what effects this could have on the birds' development, but early exposure to phthalates in lab animals leads to reproductive disorders. More studies are needed to draw a clear picture. The researchers found six different types of phthalates in the embryonic and muscle tissue samples they tested:
Eliminating some of the worst products contributing to plastic waste will help more than the ocean — the entire planet reaps the benefits. Manufacturers use fossil fuels like petroleum to create petroleum-based polymers. Drilling for crude oil can disrupt marine and land ecosystems, and drillers often clear these areas of vegetation. Doing this upsets the land's natural biodiversity, while burning fuels for production creates air-polluting gases.
You can make a tangible difference across global waters by reducing your plastic consumption one step at a time. Every individual plays a role in Mother Earth's wellness, and we can achieve healthier ecosystems by combining our efforts.
Participate in our ocean conservation efforts by purchasing 4ocean products and tracking our progress on social media. Every product you buy from our shop pulls one pound of trash from the ocean and coastlines. Explore our range of single-use alternatives or sign up for our 4ocean Bracelet Subscription to receive new bracelets before they hit the shop.
Founded in 1996 by Dr. Amanda Vincent and Dr. Heather Koldewey, Project Seahorse aims to secure a world where marine ecosystems are healthy and well-managed. Their focus on saving seahorses, securing the world's shallow seas, and training conservationists to continue this important work is what they're all about. Check out some more of the great work they are doing inside.