Marine plastic pollution – what’s the problem?

  • Some eight million tons of plastics ‘leak’ into the oceans every year, causing harm to marine wildlife – and to humans. 
  • Microplastics and floating patches of ‘plastic soup’ gathered together by currents out in the wild oceans have even been found in Arctic ice, as well as in the deepest parts of our oceans. 

Where does it come from?

  • 80% of this plastic comes from land – as litter on beaches, as occasional sewage overflow or as rubbish washed downstream, particularly in countries with poor waste management systems.
  • Also, tiny pellets used in the plastics industry – known as 'nurdles' – escape into the sea through storm drains. These are the colourful little 'mermaid’s tears' scattered on shorelines worldwide.
  • Another 20% comes from shipping vessels and fishing boats. Fishing nets find their way into the sea from boats – known as ‘ghost nets’ – which entangles sea life. And when nurdles are transported by ship to be molded into products, they can end up overboard. 

Surfers Against Sewage have produced a really good infographic of this.

What harm does it cause?

  • Birds, fish and cetaceans get entangled in nets, and they also often mistake plastic for food. Ingested plastic litter has been reported in over 250 marine species. 
  • Even larger pieces of plastic are broken down into particles by sunlight, wind and tides – and some plastics start off microscopic anyway, as microbeads in beauty and personal care products (like showergels, facial wash, scrubs and toothpastes). 
  • When fish mistake tiny pieces of plastic for food, this is passed up the food chain – right up to humans. So it is definitely our problem. 

What are the solutions?

The good news is that daily choices you take can make a difference. 

  • Use less disposable plastic each day – try Less Plastic's tips. Or take up the Marine Conservation Society’s annual #plasticchallenge each July. See our online ethical shop for ideas on plastic-free products
  • Choose cotton buds with a paper stick instead of the plastic ones and join the #switchthestick campaign.
  • Avoid beauty products containing microbeads – typically facial scrubs, shower gels and sun creams. Beat the Microbead has a list of ingredients to look out for.
  • Get yourself a Guppyfriend laundry bag to prevent microfibres from synthetic materials entering the waste water stream. Find out more.
  • Join organised beach cleans or do your own – even two minutes will do! Visit #2minutebeachclean to see how it works and join a global community of beach cleaners.
  • Turn your neighbourhood into a Plastic Free Community, and join hundreds of others. 
  • Join a local, national or international group trying to tackle marine debris through beach cleans or campaigns, such as Surfers Against Sewage.
  • If you’re in a job that involves designing things, seek ways to close the plastic loop. We’re inspired by Interface’s Net-Work's scheme, which is taking marine litter out of our ocean and off our beaches and upcycling it into more valuable products. This helps saves marine life and reduces the need for raw materials.

Main photo credit: Linda Thomas Eco Design’s haunting Ghostnet Dress, a provocative outfit made from discarded Cornish fishing nets, photographed Fraser Marchbank.