Plastic is everywhere: In your home, your office, your school — and your ocean. Among the top 10 kinds of trash picked up during the 2017 International Coastal Cleanup were food wrappers, beverage bottles, grocery bags, straws, and take out containers, all made of plastic. How did it all get there? Why is it a problem? What can we do?
While it’s tough to say exactly how much plastic is in the ocean, scientists think about 8 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010. That’s the weight of nearly 90 aircraft carriers, and the problem continues to grow.
These plastics come in many different forms. Just think about all the plastic items you use daily: the toothbrush you grab first thing in the morning, the container your lunch comes in, or the bottle you drink water from after your workout.
All these things get used and, eventually, thrown out. Many plastic products are single-use items that are designed to be thrown out, like water bottles or take out containers. These are used and discarded quickly. If this waste isn’t properly disposed of or managed, it can end up in the ocean.
Unlike some other kinds of waste, plastic doesn’t decompose. That means plastic can stick around indefinitely, wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems. Some plastics float once they enter the ocean, though not all do. As the plastic is tossed around, much of it breaks into tiny pieces, called microplastics.
The first thing that comes to mind for many people when they think of microplastics are the small beads found in some soaps and other personal care products. But microplastics also include bits of what were once larger items.
Microfibers, shed from synthetic clothing or fishing nets, are another problematic form of microplastic. These fibers, beads, and microplastic fragments can all absorb harmful pollutants like pesticides, dyes, and flame retardants, only to later release them in the ocean.
There are many ways to keep plastic out of the ocean! Here are two strategies:
Think about all the plastic items you use every day. Can you count them all? Look around you. How many plastic things can you see? Being more aware of how and why you use the plastics that you do is the first step to reducing plastic use. Commit to changing your habits by reducing your use of disposable and single-use plastic items, reusing items and/or recycling them.
Volunteer to pick up marine litter in your local community. Find a cleanup near you!
NOAA’s Marine Debris Program (MDP) works to understand how plastics — and other marine debris — get into our ocean, how they can be removed, and how they can be kept from polluting our marine environment in the future.
Commonly found Plastics include cigarette butts, food wrappers, beverage bottles, straws, cups and plates, bottle caps, and single-use bags.
How to help? Reduce, reuse, recycle. Dispose of waste properly no matter where you are. Get involved and participate in local cleanups in your area. Remember that our land and sea are connected.
Debris can enter the water via:
Microplastics are small plastics less that 5mm. They can come from large plastics breaking down, or can be produced as small plastics such as microbeads, which can be found in products such as toothpaste and face wash.
View an expanded version of the infographic that appears above from NOAA's Marine Debris program website.
While photodegradable plastics (plastics capable of being broken down by light) may break down from its first state (or created state), these plastics never completely degrade, but actually divide into tiny pieces called microplastics. Microplastics are the multi-colored pieces of plastic that can be found in a handful of sand on the beach or in the ocean. Scientists are still investigating the impact of microplastics on our ocean and marine life.