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An Ocean of Trash, and a World of Trouble

The Problem of Trash in Our Oceans

Most of us have had the sad experience of walking on a beautiful beach and being shocked to discover several large pieces or piles of trash. These randomly located chunks of debris often contain a large amount of plastic, rubber, paper, and other assorted items that people all over the world throw into the water.

An Ocean of Trash, and a World of Trouble

Just to cite one representative example, an organization called The Ocean Conservancy that works for clean oceans has retrieved more than 220 million pounds of trash from our world’s seas in just the past three decades. Keep in mind, that’s just what they’ve picked up. It represents a small fraction of the total amount of trash in the oceans.

How Bad Is the Problem?

According to the best estimates by ocean pollution experts, there are something like 8,000,000 metric tons of plastic that enter into the ocean every single year! What, then, is the price we pay if we don’t do something now to stop the flow of trash and other pollution into the oceans? It could very well mean that in the near future, the ocean would hold about one-third as much trash as it does fish. The consequences of dirty oceans are severe and pose a serious health challenge to the entire human race.

trash in the ocean

The good news is that there is still time to stop the spread of trash and save the oceans. Already, individuals and large organizations have been at the forefront of making the oceans cleaner and keeping them clean.

In order to figure out the best way you can help, it’s important to learn a few basic facts about ocean pollution, like how the dirty stuff travels around the planet, what its actual harmful effects are, and more. After taking in some essential information, you’ll be in a better position to know how you can personally work to make our oceans trash-free.

How Ocean Trash Travels and Where It Comes From

The ocean’s currents carry trash to and fro, all over the world, in fact. The interplay between ocean currents and wind cause giant flotillas of trash to eventually end up in places that have never even experienced pollution. From the South Seas to the Arctic Ocean, trash in the oceans is a major problem.

How Trash Travels

One of the best ways to understand where ocean trash comes from and how it manages to travel around the earth is to study a thing called the “Pacific garbage patch.” It’s one of many massive garbage collections floating in the world’s oceans, in this case the Pacific Ocean.

How Trash Travels

How big is the patch? It’s currently twice the size of the state of Texas, and growing. The patch contains a wide and disturbing collection of refuse, including cigarette butts, bottles (both glass and plastic), huge swaths of plastic debris, mattresses, pieces of cars, sections of broken boats, and much more.

You can’t actually travel to a specific point in the ocean and view trash patches. They’re more like collections of huge amounts of trash within several swirling miles of ocean water, which does appear to be quite dirty. But inside those many miles of ocean water is tons and tons of trash. The primary danger of these trash patches is their potential harm to aquatic life of all kinds, turtles, dolphins, whales, sharks, and innumerable other kinds of sea life, primarily hundreds of species of fish.

These trash patches are created by the earth’s wind patterns as well as the way the planet rotates. These two phenomena cause circle-like currents called gyres, in which the trash gets trapped, sort of the way you see things get trapped in a small whirlpool. In fact, in these ocean trash gyres, the most common substance is micro plastic. Dangerous to both humans and sea life, micro-plastic consists of minute piece of broken items that were originally constructed of plastic.

One of the saddest effects of this micro-plastic and the larger pieces of plastic floating in the ocean is the damage they do to sea life. It’s been shown that sea turtles can’t tell the difference between jellyfish and certain plastic products, like bags. Because sea turtles often dine on jellyfish, that means they sometimes end up eating plastic bags instead.

Another example of how large and small pieces of plastic harm ocean life: this man-made substance prevents natural sunlight from getting to the ocean’s surface and below it, thus starving microscopic life forms of the nutrients the so desperately need to survive. Plankton and algae are an essential part of the ocean’s ecosystem. When they are unable to live, the fish that eat them could eventually die off.

What’s the bottom line about plastic in the ocean? It causes nothing but harm and the problem is only getting worse with so much plastic entering the ocean every year.

Where Ocean Trash Comes From

No one dumps huge volumes of trash directly into the ocean, but debris of all kinds has a way of ending up there. For example, of all that micro-plastic in the ocean, the millions of tons of it, about 80 percent is the direct result of activities that take place on land. The other 20 percent is the result of shipping pollution. When you throw away a bag full of trash, some of it end up in landfills. Other trash, like that in the streets, and elsewhere, can easily end up in a city’s sewer system, in rivers, and eventually in the ocean.

recycle your garbage

Think about it: when people throw away litter in a park or anywhere else, that debris can be carried by wind currents and end up in a city’s storm drains. As the litter wends its way along the sewer pipes it often ends up in larger waterways, like streams and rivers. Finally, much of it find its final home in the oceans.

That’s bad enough, right? Well, it gets worse, actually. As the sun’s rays bear down on plastic debris floating in the ocean, the heat is able to break it down into those dangerous micro-plastics that are such a problem for aquatic life. Note that unlike some kinds of paper, wood, and other materials, plastic does not ever reach a total biodegraded state. That’s right, it never really breaks down. It just continues to exist as micro-plastic forever, doing damage for as long as it is in the water.

The Harmful Effects of Ocean Trash

There are two main problems with ocean trash. First, plants and animals in the sea are the primary recipients of all the bad effects of pollution. That’s because so much of the waste that ends up in oceans included toxins of varying degrees of danger. Toxic substances have the ability to absorb oxygen from the ocean water, which means there is less oxygen to go around for sea life that needs it to survive. Fish, plants, and ocean mammals can easily die as a result of these toxins that rob the water of its life-giving oxygen.

garbage on the beach

It’s been estimated that about one million aquatic birds die every year as a direct result of pollution and trash in the oceans. Plastic trash is one of the most serious of all problems when it comes to keeping the earth’s giant bodies of water clean and healthy. Plastic also has the potential to deplete the water’s oxygen because it never decomposes and in essence creates a kind of film that covers the surface of the water.

Eventually, animals die, and the ones that don’t can have their reproductive cycles thrown off, become ill, and otherwise stop living a healthy, natural life.

Fact 1: Plastics are the most common element found in the ocean today. Plastic, in particular, is harmful to the environment as it does not break down easily and is often mistaken as food by marine animals.

Here’s where the harm to humans comes in. If aquatic life is disturbed by pollution, the chance for widespread interruption of the food chain could cause a disruption of the global food supply, which is heavily dependent on fish and plants from the oceans. Even if there are enough fish to eat, the day could come when ocean fish has turned toxic due to high levels of trash in the water. Anyone who eats tainted seafood could suffer serious health consequences.

If you’ve ever heard the old saying, “What goes around, comes around,” then you understand how the human problem of allowing trash to end up in the oceans could “come back around” and harm the very people who caused the problem in the first place: us. In 1975, one of the main laws that was written to solve this problem was written. It’s called the London Convention, an international agreement that has had some good effects but not nearly enough.

Also, the U.S. has passed two laws related to the problem, the ODA, Ocean Dumping Act, and the CWA, the Clean Water Act, both of which have has the effect of decreasing, at least to a small degree, the problem of ocean pollution. But it’s apparent that these laws have not been enough to stave off the huge issue which still haunts the human race: ocean trash pollution.

One project that has shown promise is the Ocean Cleanup Project, begun by a European entrepreneur. The project works to take plastic waste out of the ocean and at the same time keep more plastic from entering the oceans. Since 2013, the Ocean Cleanup Project has been doing research with the goal of learning how big the problem is, and finding out how much trash and plastic is in the world’s oceans. That kind of information can help efforts to get rid of plastic, trash, and other forms of pollution.

Facts About Ocean Trash That You Need To Know

Here are some disturbing, but interesting facts about ocean trash and pollution:

  • About 80 percent of all all ocean trash and has been shown to be seriously harmful to aquatic life

  • The ocean is home to about 25 trillion individual pieces of trash in the form of plastic debris. About 300,000 tons of that is on the surface of the water.

  • About four-fifths of all trash in the ocean comes from land-based activity, like poor waste management, litter, and construction.

  • So-called “single-use” plastics comprise the top five kinds of debris in the oceans. They include food wrappers, plastic cigarette pieces, plastic straws, plastic bottle caps, and plastic bottles.

  • An additional 18 billion pounds of debris, primarily plastic-based, ends up in the oceans every year.

  • Plastic is often eaten by ocean mammals and fish who mistake it for food.

  • In excess of one million sea birds die each year as a result of pollution.

  • Every square mile of ocean surface, on average, contains more than 45,000 chunks of floating plastic.

  • More than 100,000 aquatic animals die each year as a result of eating plastic or becoming entangled in it.

  • About 80 percent of all the land-based sewage that enters the Mediterranean Sea is known to be “untreated,” or highly toxic, with the potential to cause widespread disease.

What Can We Do To Solve the Problem of Ocean Trash

cleaning the ocean

Here are some simple ways that anyone can begin to solve the problem of trash in the world’s oceans:

  • Become an activist by joining one of the many organizations that works to keep oceans clean.

  • Don’t use harmful chemicals on your lawn. They can end up in the groundwater and eventually make their way to the ocean.

  • Don’t litter.

  • Reduce your personal use of plastic, especially straws and single-use bottles.

  • Donate to one of the hundreds of worldwide charitable organizations that works for cleaner oceans.

  • Donate your personal time to local trash cleanup organizations.

  • Don’t waste water.

  • Hold corporations accountable by avoiding those that do not work to protect the oceans during their international manufacturing processes.

  • Stay informed and find out your local and national politicians’ positions on issues related to ocean trash.

  • Educate others about what you learn in your own research on this important topic.

Remember, every small effort helps, so don’t delay. Begin now. Make the oceans cleaner with your actions and advocacy.