Marine plastic pollution

Our planet is drowning in plastic pollution it’s time for change!

Last reviewed

November 2021
  • Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year for use in a wide variety of applications.
  • At least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments.
  • Marine species ingest or are entangled by plastic debris, which causes severe injuries and death.
  • Plastic pollution threatens food safety and quality, human health, coastal tourism, and contributes to climate change.
  • There is an urgent need to explore new and existing legally binding agreements to address marine plastic pollution.

What is the issue ?

Plastic is a synthetic organic polymer made from petroleum with properties ideally suited for a wide variety of applications including: packaging, building and construction, household and sports equipment, vehicles, electronics and agriculture. Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, half of which is used to create single-use items such as shopping bags, cups and straws. If discarded improperly, plastic waste can harm the environment and biodiversity.

At least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. Plastic debris is currently the most abundant type of litter in the ocean, making up 80% of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. Plastic is found on the shorelines of every continent, with more plastic waste found near popular tourist destinations and densely populated areas.

Read full article by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 

Our planet is drowning in plastic

Our planet is drowning in plastic pollution it’s time for change!

While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become addicted to single-use or disposable plastic — with severe environmental consequences.

Around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once — and then thrown away. Plastic waste is now so ubiquitous in the natural environment that scientists have even suggested it could serve as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene era.

Plastics including microplastics are now ubiquitous in our natural environment. They are becoming part of the Earth’s fossil record and a marker of the Anthropocene, our current geological era. They have even given their name to a new marine microbial habitat called the “plastisphere”.

So how did we get here?

From the 1950s to the 1970s, only a small amount of plastic was produced, and as a result, plastic waste was relatively manageable.

However between the 1970s and the 1990s, plastic waste generation more than tripled, reflecting a similar rise in plastic production.

In the early 2000s, the amount of plastic waste we generated rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years.

Today, we produce about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste every year.

We are seeing other worrying trends. Since the 1970s, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material. If historic growth trends continue, global production of primary plastic is forecasted to reach 1,100 million tonnes by 2050. We have also seen a worrying shift towards single-use plastic products, items that are meant to be thrown away after a single short use.

Approximately 36 per cent of all plastics produced are used in packaging, including single-use plastic products for food and beverage containers, approximately 85 per cent of which ends up in landfills or as unregulated waste.

Additionally, some 98 per cent of single-use plastic products are produced from fossil fuel, or “virgin” feedstock. The level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is forecast to grow to 19 per cent of the global carbon budget by 2040.


Read full article on this link 

Meet Mr Trash Wheel – and the other new devices that eat river plastic

A conveyor belt lifts waste into the 'mouth' of a machine with a water wheel on one side and two 'eyes' on the top
Mr Trash Wheel scooping up debris in Baltimore harbour. More than 17 tonnes have been collected in a day. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

From ‘bubble barriers’ to floating drones, a host of new projects aim to stop plastic pollution before it ever reaches the ocean

The technology, created by a Dutch firm and already being used in Amsterdam, is being trialled in the Douro River in Porto, Portugal, as part of the EU-supported Maelstrom (marine litter sustainable removal and management) project.

It is the latest in a series of new technologies designed to find sustainable ways to remove and treat river debris before it reaches the sea.

Plastic can be spread by natural disasters, such as a tsunami, which can push invasive species and debris halfway across the world. But rivers carry a much more regular supply of plastic to the oceans. Research in 2017 found that 10 river systems transport 90% of all the plastic that ends up in the world’s oceans (two in Africa – the Nile and Niger – with the other eight in Asia: the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Yangtze, Haihe, Pearl, Mekong and Amur).

A man on the prow of a small boat paddles through a floating carpet of rubbish covering the surface of a wide river
A man paddles along the Citarum River in West Java, Indonesia, one of the word’s most polluted rivers. In 2018, it was estimated that 20,000 tonnes of rubbish and 350,000 tonnes of wastewater were dumped in it every day. Photograph: Andrea Carrubba/The Guardian

Molly Morse, a scientist at UC Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Initiative and lead on its global Clean Currents Coalition, says: “In some cases, communities don’t have access to proper waste pickup services and must turn to what might seem to be the only alternative: dump the trash directly in the river to be carried away.

“In other cases, plastic litter on land is moved by rain or wind into a river, where […] the plastic may make its way to the ocean.”

An estimated 0.8m to 2.7m tonnes of plastic are carried by rivers to the ocean each year. That is the equivalent of 66,000 to 225,000 doubledecker buses.

“The most successful solutions have been simpler technologies, such as booms, barriers and traps”

Molly Morse, Benioff Ocean Initiative

Without barriers, river currents carry plastic directly to the sea, where it becomes far trickier to tackle: plastic often floats for vast distances, can host invasive species and becomes part of the wider plastisphere, such as the concentration of seaborne waste in the Great Pacific garbage patch.

That is why some scientists are calling for greater efforts to stop plastic going into rivers in the first place. A 2020 study found that a “significant reduction” of plastic in the ocean could be achieved only by stopping it reaching the sea, or through a combination of river barriers and other clean-up devices.

Cue inventors, who have developed an array of river barriers and collection devices to catch and remove riverine plastic – from simple nets and booms to conveyor belts and robots.

Mr Trash Wheel, known officially as the Inner Harbor Water Wheel, is a conveyor-belt system powered by currents and solar energy, launched in 2014 in the US city of Baltimore. Long booms with submerged skirts funnel waste into a central hub, where autonomous rakes scoop it on to a conveyor belt that deposits it on a barge, with more than 17 tonnes collected in a day.

Once full, the barge takes the rubbish to be incinerated in a power plant, though it is hoped that eventually the collected waste can be sorted and recycled. There is now a whole family of Trash Wheels in Baltimore, the latest addition being Gwynnda, the Good Wheel of the West.

Or there’s the Interceptor, a floating, solar-powered device developed by the non-profit organisation The Ocean Cleanup, billed as the “world’s first scalable solution” to rid the oceans of plastic. Similar but larger than the trash wheel, it has barriers that guide rubbish on to a conveyor belt, where a shuttle distributes it among five onboard waste bins.

Another design, the Azure barrier, developed by the UK-based startup Ichthion to operate in any river, can remove up to 80 tonnes of plastic a day using durable, tide-sensitive booms that direct plastic to extraction points along the bank. The plastic is processed into flakes for recycling.

Other more hi-tech inventions include the WasteShark, an electronically controlled “aquadrone” that preys on plastic – up to 350kg at a time. Using algorithms from the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, the WasteShark moves around and back to its docking station autonomously, where up to five of the catamaran-shaped vessels can deposit the collected plastic and recharge. The design, developed by a Dutch startup, RanMarine, is due to be showcased at CES 2022 in Las Vegas this month.

A small catamaran-shaped drone moving along the surface of a waterway
The WasteShark aquadrone uses algorithms to move around and back to its docking station autonomously, where it deposits the collected plastic and recharges. Photograph: Handout

While the cost of implementing these technologies may be feasible for some cities and towns – and vastly preferable to the cost of plastic pollution, which it is estimated will reach $7.1tn (£5.25tn) by 2040 – there are many other factors to consider. These include, says Morse, “the physical river characteristics, amount of waste, seasonal changes, ecology, power sources, workforce availability, security, boat traffic [and] funding”.

Philip Ehrhorn, co-founder of the Great Bubble Barrier, says: “One of the biggest challenges we face is the lack of regulation regarding plastic pollution in our waterways and thereof the lack of ownership and responsibility for the problem.

“The urgency to solve our plastic pollution problem in rivers is down to forward-thinking water authorities and governments, since plastic is not yet officially considered a water pollutant,” he says.

Most of the world’s top 20 plastic-polluting rivers are in developing countries. But Ehrhorn adds: “Europe still has a huge issue with plastic pollution, which shouldn’t be ignored nor underestimated.”

EU laws were introduced in January last year to tackle the “wild west” of plastic waste being dumped in poorer countries; the UK is one of Europe’s worst offenders, exporting about 70% of its plastic. But the wildest west lies across the Atlantic: the US is the world’s biggest plastic polluter, accounting for more than all EU countries combined.

Municipal rubbish collectors in boats try to clear a canal of flotsam and household waste
Plastic and other waste clogging Bangkok’s Ladprao canal. Up to 10 tonnes of rubbish are collected from the city’s canals everyday. Photograph: Narong Sangnak/EPA

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, says Morse. “Rivers vary immensely in respect to factors such as depth, width, flow and seasonality. What might work in a massive river like the Mississippi in the United States, which flows all year round, likely will not work for a smaller, more seasonal river like the Tijuana in Mexico.”

In Ecuador, Ichthion’s Azure prototype had problems on the Portoviejo River. Data had suggested the river’s depth varied in the wet and dry seasons by two metres; in reality, it fluctuated by as much as four metres within a few days.

Getting support from the local people and permission for new infrastructure can also be difficult. For the Clean Currents Coalition, which is working with eight teams around the world, simplicity works best.

“The most successful solutions have been the simpler technologies – such as booms, barriers and traps – that are manufactured locally and require manual removal of the captured waste,” Morse says. This can also create extra jobs.

One example of these is Wildcoast’s “brute boom” at the Los Laureles Canyon, a tributary of the Tijuana River. The double-walled float stretches across the river and allows the boom to move with the changing depth. A suspended steel mesh catches the plastic, which is taken for processing once the boom is full. Reports from San Diego in California suggest that it has succeeded in reducing plastic downstream.

A barge moves along a river with the dome of a mosque in the background

The Interceptor scoops waste from the Klang River near the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. The device, developed by the Ocean Cleanup, is solar-powered. Photograph: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty

TerraCycle’s river traps, which are installed in some of Bangkok’s 1,600 polluted canals, catch up to 2.5 tonnes of waste a day, helping to recycle plastic instead of sending it to landfill.

A German startup, Plastic Fischer, has installed TrashBooms in waterways in Indonesia, India and Vietnam. It advocates a local, low-tech and low-cost approach, using locally manufactured mesh-and-float barriers to catch rubbish.

Many environmentalists argue that these innovations treat the symptoms, not the problem, and that the only real solution is to curb plastic production. But, with plastic manufacturing shipments estimated to have risen by 2.2% last year by the Plastic Industry Association, this is not likely any time soon.

“If we’re going to keep producing, consuming and disposing of plastics at, or near, our current rate, our ability to manage it needs to catch up – and quickly,” says Morse.

Read the full article on The Guardian