The Ocean’s Recycling Problem

Source: The Daily Catch/Rob Foos - December 17, 2014 in Featured, TMP

Last week, a study made headlines in nearly every major news outlet when it revealed the shocking amount of plastic floating in the world’s oceans. Surprising the uninformed who didn’t know the magnitude of the problem and the informed who believed the magnitude to be far greater, researchers published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE after years of data collection and lifetimes of personal experience. But there’s much the major news outlets neglected to mention about the ocean’s recycling problem.

Growing up on the water in Southern California, I vividly remember as a child the first time I looked into the sea and actually saw the bottom. Anchored in about 20 feet of water in Fry’s Harbor on Santa Cruz Island, I couldn’t break my gaze from the previously mysterious features of the seabed below me. Up to that point, I accepted as fact that the ocean must be a dirty place. Sadly, that epiphany wasn’t far from the truth.

If you are just hearing about this issue for the first time, you were probably shocked to hear that 269,000 tons of plastic are floating in the ocean, numbering more than 5.25 trillion particles. After all, that is a staggering figure! Our friends at Grist characterized the amount as the equivalent of 2,150 adult blue whales, MIT compared it to 38,000 African elephants, and Dr. Manus Erikson, co-founder of the 5Gyres Foundation and one of the researchers responsible for the study, compared it to stacking 2-liter soda bottles end-over-end to the moon and back—twice.

Many in the ocean conservation community were surprised by the figure. A regularly cited study from the National Academy of Sciences in 1975 estimated the flow of plastic into the ocean to be .1% of global production of plastic. In 2010, we produced 270 million tons of plastic, so the amount that flowed into the ocean that year alone should have been roughly 270,000 tons, just about the same amount as recently discovered by this study.

“The recent report on the amounts of ‘floating’ plastic in the ocean shows some of the scale of the problem of plastic in our environment,” says Doug Woodring, Founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance, “And it should be remembered that this was only ‘surface’ plastic, and not an estimate of what is underwater.”

Another important note is the study published the most conservative figures for plastic in the seas, qualifying the figures as the ‘minimum’ amounts.

The Global Ocean Commission, an independent group comprised of government and business leaders including several former prime ministers, published their final report “From Decline to Recovery, A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean” in June with eight recommendations to save the seas. Recommendation five focused on keeping plastics out of the ocean, referencing a study by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) that 15% of marine debris floats on the surface, 15% remains in the water column, and 70% rests on the seabed. Taking the amount found on the surface by the study, that makes for approximately 1.8 million tons of total plastic in the ocean, but is that all of it?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, plastic bottles take 450 years to decompose, and other plastic products take varying amounts of time from 50 years to 600. Therefore, the vast majority of plastic products ever produced are still in existence today. Over time, these items break down into smaller pieces from the beating they take from the elements and become known as microplastics, which look a lot like phytoplankton to fish. One theory for plastic’s disappearing act is ingestion by marine creatures, which is supported by UNEP’s studies which reveal up to 80% of sea turtle and sea bird species have consumed plastic. Could plastic make its way up the food chain to the very apex—humans? According to a study published last year investigating the transfer of harmful chemicals to the fish that ingested them, the answer is yes.


Photo: Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Another possibility for the missing plastic in the ocean the deep seabed. A study published today sampled deep-water corals and sediments to depths up to 3,500 meters, with the majority of samples taken at the 1,000-meter range. Microplastics were abundant in all coral and sediment samples, but due to the small sample size, global estimations cannot be made. It can be inferred, however, that plastics are impacting even the deepest marine habitats.

Although it can seem overwhelming, there are small behavioral modifications each of us can make which, when compounded across a society, can have a large impact on the environment.

  • Support the banning of single-use plastic bags and utilize multi- rather than single-use items (plastic bags, bottles, etc.).
  • Not all plastic is created equal… check out the infographic below, courtesy of Plastiki.com, and avoid purchasing plastics that your local recycle center will not accept.
  • Always dispose of your waste into the proper receptacles and try not to go past any trash or litter without picking it up.


Many organizations are now working to tackle the problem of plastic debris in the sea. The Ocean Recovery Alliance commissioned a study earlier this year titled ‘Valuing Plastic’, with research conducted by natural capital analysts Trucost and supported by UNEP. Doug Woodring explains, “The research evaluated 16 sectors of the global consumer goods industry, and the disclosures of 100 listed companies. The results show that the total natural capital cost of plastic used in the consumer goods industry is over $75bn per year, with a cost impact of over $13bn to the ocean environment. The report helps to explain the risks associated with a lack of focus on this material as a resource, as well as the benefits of better plastic management.”

Turning from the big picture, macro view on the plastic industry is an organization that focuses on students. One More Generation, an incredible organization started by two kids with the goal of keeping endangered animals alive for one more generation, has a Plastic and Recycling Awareness Curriculum that can be taught in schools. Utilizing a grassroots effort, they are giving students the tools to teach their families about the importance of recycling which is also modifying their behavior at grocery stores.

The issue of plastic debris is as big as the ocean, but if we all pitch in, together we can make a world of difference to fix the ocean’s recycling problem.

Rob Foos is the Director of Development for The TerraMar Project, a nonprofit dedicated to building an ocean community to provide a voice for the seas. Learn more about the ocean and how you can be part of the solution by checking out http://theterramarproject.org.

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