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How Much Plastic Is In the Ocean 2024

plastic in the ocean

When plastic was introduced in 1907, it changed many industries. Plastic is a versatile and cheap material used in everyday products, from home construction to food packaging. How much plastic is in the ocean? In the 1950s, just 2 million tons of plastic was manufactured yearly. Today, that figure is around 450 million tons. About one to two million tons of that ends up in the ocean. Plastic pollution in the ocean is a serious problem that impacts wildlife and the ocean ecosystem.

The Problem with Plastic

One scientist estimates that by mid-century, the amount of plastic in the ocean will overtake the number of fish. The world keeps producing plastic, much of which is a single-use item that goes directly into the trash. Large pieces of plastic may break down into smaller pieces, but most plastics are not biodegradable. The plastic in the ocean breaks apart into microplastics, which contaminate both freshwater and ocean ecosystems. Some of these microplastics end up in drinking water, which poses a health risk for humans and animals alike.

a reef with plastic in the ocean

What Happens to Plastic Once it Enters the Ocean?

Plastic in the ocean won’t break down, so it continues to impact the ocean ecosystem for years. Wildlife pays a heavy toll on all the plastics in the ocean.

  • Smaller fish ingest microplastics, which transfer to larger fish up the food chain. These plastics can cause injury to the fish’s intestines or death. If fish don’t die before being caught for human use, humans can ingest the microplastics.
  • Sea turtles eat floating plastics instead of food. If the plastic doesn’t harm the animal, the turtle may think it’s full and die of starvation. Some scientists also believe that plastic pollution can impact the reproduction of sea turtles and other species.
  • Seabirds and other marine mammals ingest plastics, confusing plastic with real food.
  • Marine wildlife gets tangled up in plastic debris, causing harm and death. The Stellar Sea lion is endangered because the species is dying off quickly from getting tangled up with packing bands.
  • Coral reefs are being damaged by plastics that end up in the beds. This impacts over 7,000 species of marine wildlife that rely on the coral reef ecosystem.

Where Do Ocean Plastics End Up?

Researchers have studied this problem for decades. Some of the plastics in the ocean end up along the shoreline. However, the plastics found floating along the coast and at sea don’t account for the estimated total amount of plastic found in the ocean. Microplastics float to the bottom of the ocean, getting entangled in the ecosystem. Scientists estimate that ocean plastic pollution kills around one million marine animals annually. This includes amphibians, reptiles, fish, mammals, and birds. It does not consider the number of ocean plants and microorganisms dying from pollution.

the yacht america on the water

What Can You Do About Plastics in the Ocean?

Oceans support most of the world’s economy, providing many communities sustenance, jobs, and tourism. The oceans are essential to humanity beyond just financial gains. Without healthy oceans, the world won’t survive. Many organizations are working hard to reduce plastic use. The United Nations is working toward a treaty to end ocean plastic pollution. Individually, stop using one-use plastics, straws, cups, plastic-eating products, etc. Choose reusable shopping bags instead of plastic bags. Recycle, reuse, and reduce your reliance on plastics. Talk to government officials in your community about how garbage is managed. If you live near a coastline or river, spend a day each month cleaning up waste. Get out on the ocean with a whale-watching cruise to learn how plastics impact our oceans.