In the decades since plastic production first skyrocketed in the 1950s, more than 8,000 million metric tons of plastics have been manufactured. At least 75 percent of this plastic has ended up as waste, with 15 million metric tons entering the ocean every year.
In a recent collection of commentaries published in PLOS Biology, experts addressed the critical scientific challenges in understanding the full scope of plastic pollution.
“The explosive production of affordable plastic goods during the 1950s ushered in an era of disposable living, fueled by an addiction to convenience and consumerism, that has created one of the world’s most vexing pollution problems. Plastic, for all its uses, has left a trail of debris from the deepest ocean trenches to the remotest polar reaches,” wrote the researchers.
“Plastic pollutes throughout its life cycle, from its beginnings as a by-product of greenhouse gas-emitting oil and natural gas refining to its degradation-resistant end as increasingly fragmented shards of micro-and nanoplastics in atmospheric currents, alpine snow, estuaries, lakes, oceans, and soils. Researchers are finding microplastics in the gut or tissue of nearly every living thing they examine, including the placentas of unborn children.”
The first sign of the ongoing plastic pollution crisis in the ocean emerged nearly 50 years ago, when marine biologists spotted plastic pellets stuck to tiny marine organisms and seaweed in the Sargasso Sea. The experts accurately predicted that marine plastic pollution would become much more prevalent over time as plastic production increased.
“Researchers have struggled to keep tabs on plastic production and waste ever since,” said the researchers. “The first global assessment of mass-produced plastics, reported in 2017, estimated that manufacturers had produced 8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastics, creating 6,300 million metric tons of plastic waste – with only 9% recycled, 12% incinerated, and the rest either piling up in landfills or entering the environment.”
Plastic production is expected to double, or possibly even triple, by mid-century. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans within the next three decades.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added an entirely new dimension to the ongoing crisis in the form of plastic masks. According to EarthDay.org, roughly 52 billion face masks were manufactured in 2020, and 1.56 billion of those masks have ended up in our oceans.
“Each year, ocean plastic pollution kills about 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, over a million seabirds and even greater numbers of fish and other species,” noted the Earth Day Network. “What’s more, it greatly impacts coastal communities and economies who rely on oceans for their livelihoods.”
However, these alarming trends in marine plastic pollution could still be reversed, especially with the help of organizations that are working to rid the oceans of plastic.
The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organization that is developing advanced technologies to extract plastic pollution from the ocean. The company aims to remove 90 percent of all floating ocean plastic.
Ocean Conservancy is also working to eliminate marine plastic pollution. For more than 30 years, Ocean Conservancy has hosted its International Coastal Cleanup, which brings millions of volunteers together to clean beaches across the world.
“Earth Day is a time to reflect on all of the wild and spectacular things our planet has to offer,” wrote the advocacy group. “And since more than 70% of Earth is covered by the ocean, it’s only fitting that we single out the incredible places in the sea.”