Plastic ocean pollution: its effects on marine life


written by Saxon • July 16, 2019

Ocean pollution and effects on marine life

Iconic British environmental figure, Sir David Attenborough, has described the issue of plastic pollution across the world as an “unfolding catastrophe”. Over 220 million tons of plastic are produced each year. Approximately 80% of global marine pollution comes from land-based sources1. What are the results of all this pollution on marine ecosystems? And, what can we do to help?

The development of plastic ocean pollution

In recent years awareness and support for issues concerning climate change, pollution, and our oceans have gathered and continue to gather public support, this begs the question: When was plastic pollution in the oceans widely recognised as a serious issue? Plastics in the oceans started to accumulate in the 1960s, and the reputation of plastics began to fall throughout the 1970s and 1980s2. Today, of the now 9.2 billion tons of plastic products, 6.9 billion tons have become waste – with 6.3 billion tons failing to make it into a recycling system3.

Much of the trash in the oceans accumulate in 5 large ocean gyres. Due to its sheer magnitude, the highly polluted ocean gyre of the Pacific, named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, has a central role in many discussions about ocean pollution. According to a recent study, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has a greater surface area size than France, Germany, and Spain combined4. The Patch is made up of approximately 80,000 tonnes of buoyant plastic – that’s roughly the weight of 50,000 Ford Focus cars.

It is estimated that by 2050, the weight of plastic in the oceans will be greater than the weight of all of fish5.

What are the effects of plastic pollution on marine life

In 2018, a sperm whale washed up on the coast of Spain with more than 64 pounds of plastic waste in its stomach6. Ocean plastics are estimated to kill millions of marine creatures every year5, with approximately 700 species of fish, marine mammals, and sea birds are to potentially go extinct due to plastic pollution3. For marine wildlife, there is the immediate threat of being harmed or trapped by the bigger plastic items – and then there is the more invisible threat of microplastics. Species of all shapes and sizes are unknowingly consuming microplastics (plastic items the fifth of an inch and smaller).

These microplastics make their way up the food chain, with many studies now investigating how they may be affecting humans through the consumption of fish and seafood7. And this issue is not limited to the areas surrounding the 5 ocean gyres – to the surprise of many, a study revealed that Arctic ice contains these microplastics in a greater concentration than the water of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Projects tackling ocean pollution

Here are a few projects that we have become aware of that are inspiring a positive change in relation to ocean pollution, whether that is directly looking to manage the current situation, or looking to educate others on the subject and lead a shift in mindset:

  • The Ocean Cleanup, and their System 001/B

The Ocean Cleanup project, founded by Dutchman Boyan Slat in 2013 – then aged just 18 – have developed a “passive system” that is composed of a surface floating unit and an underwater skirt unit. The 600-meter-long floater sits on the surface, while the 3 meters underwater skirt trails below. Using the wind, waves, and current, the system is carried around capturing plastics.

The second launch of the first unit, the System 001/B – that is equipped with 2 satellite pods, 2 navigation pods, 9 lanterns, and a camera – has just made its way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as it unravels its Mission Plan. The Ocean Cleanup claims that a “full-scale deployment” of the System is estimated to clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch every 5 years.

Learn more about the Ocean Cleanup:

  • Parley for the Oceans

Parley look to create an ecosystem of people passionate about positive change and the protection of the oceans. The approach of Parley, in the words of Dianna Cohen, is “to create an atmosphere of collaboration and to bring disparate parties together who might not meet each other and might not know that they can work together on something”.

One example of a collaborative project that Parley has established is with Adidas. Together in 2016, they launched their first collaborative lines of trainers and sports training apparel made from plastic waste, these products produced from at least 75% upcycled plastics. In 2018, they came together to launch the Run for the Oceans project, in this collaboration, Adidas would donate $1 for every kilometer run by every runner choosing to be involved. In its first year, this initiative raised $1 million, and this year again reaching the cap of an increased amount of $1.5 million.

Founder of Parley for the Oceans, Cyrill Gutsch, commenting on their collaboration with Adidas stated: “The consumer can boost the demand for change. But it’s up to eco-innovation leaders, like Adidas, to make change a reality.”

Learn more about Parley for the Oceans

  • The #MyOceanChallenge

Founded by Team Malizia – a group made up of competitive sailors Pierre Casiraghi and Boris Herrmann, along with a network of other specialists – the #MyOceanChallenge aims to inspire compassion for the oceans in the youth. The Team Malizia stating they want “to fascinate, engage, and inspire young minds and create future ambassadors for ocean protection.”

Working with teacher Birte Lorenzen, Team Malizia has produced a tested package of learning materials based on the ocean and sailing. The structured course allows children to comprehend and appreciate the importance the ocean has on the rest of the planet. This course can be downloaded on the Boris Herrmann website.

Learn more about the #MyOceanChallenge:

How can I help fight ocean pollution and reduce my impact on the environment?

This is a list of actionable habits or actions you can do at a personal level to lessen your impact on ocean pollution, carbon emissions, and the issue of global pollution. This list has been drawn from a variety of sources including Parley, Adidas, Team Malizia, and Columbia University.

  • Shop responsibly
  • Commute responsibly
  • Travel responsibly
  • Consider your meat consumption
  • Manage your waste responsibly
  • Research your nearest cleanup efforts – the Surfrider Organisation, for example, have been running global cleanups since 1990
  • Support organisations that are making a difference – we’ve only listed a few of the many projects that are striving for positive change

The relationship between sailing holidays, pollution, and marine wellfare

Sailing holidays can be a magnificent, environmentally friendly, alternative to other holidays at sea. There are however a number of things that travellers can watch on a sailing holiday to severely limit any negative impact on the sea:

  1. Prevent rubbish and plastic products from ending up in the sea
  2. Avoid the use of harmful body and boat cleaning products
  3. Recycle, and where possible reuse, all plastic bottles and receptacles
  4. Choose to eat sustainably sourced, local foods
  5. Respect the beaches, seabeds and coral reefs throughout the sailing experience