Plastic in the ocean: The impact

While there are many beautiful beaches around the world, it’s becoming harder and harder to find spots that civilization hasn’t tainted. And, while human activity impacts the environment in many ways, one of the most pressing problems is the current plastic crisis. 


We’ve talked about plastic islands in the past. These enormous islands of floating trash stretch for millions of square miles, with one in the Pacific Ocean being three times the size of France. While massive in scale, however, it’s important to remember that plastic is a problem that affects all parts of the ocean, not just the area around these “islands.” 


Today we’re going to examine the impact that plastic has on the ocean. We’ll also discuss a few productive steps the average person can take to help combat the issue. 


The convenience of plastic 

It might be hard to believe, but every piece of plastic you see is less than a century old. That’s because after World War II, manufacturers began using plastic in everything. It allowed the development of faster cars and jets, transformed traditional medicinal practices, and even helped people reach the moon. Today, half of all plastic ever manufactured is from the last 15 years. 


While convenient, the popularity of plastic has led to the growth of throwaway culture, something that lingers on to this day. Most people don’t use single-use plastics like takeout containers, food wrappers, and plastic bags for more than a few minutes or hours. However, after we discard them, they continue to exist for hundreds of years


How pieces of plastic become world travelers 

Most of the plastic you see at the beach and in the ocean comes from inland sources. Major rivers act as assembly lines, gathering plastic, collecting more of it, then churning it all out to sea. Much of the world’s plastic stays in coastal waters, but if it gets caught in an ocean current, it can quickly make its way around the globe. 


For instance, scientists have visited remote islands in the South Pacific. Despite being uninhabited, they’ve discovered bits of plastic that originated in places as far away as the United States, Russia, China, and Europe. 


As these plastics endure sun, surf, and sand, they break down into microplastics, which are often as small as one-fifth of an inch. Scientists have found these in the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth, and Mount Everest, the highest. 

The threat plastic poses to wildlife

Of course, plastic doesn’t just sit harmlessly in the ocean. From fish and birds to mammals and reptiles, plastic affects millions of animals each year.


Larger animals like turtles, seals, and whales often get trapped in fishing gear or other discarded objects. Once caught, many either die from starvation or get suffocated. Likewise, microplastics make their way into all of these animals, as well as into smaller creatures, such as fish and shellfish. These can lead to digestive blockages, organ failure, and many other problems. 

Turning the plastic tide

Groups around the world are working tirelessly to clean plastics out of the ocean. However, given the magnitude of the problem, stopping the plastic tide is not something that any one group can do.

The world needs to work together to combat the issue. Through a collective effort undertaken by governments and businesses everywhere, we can help clean up the mess and prevent ourselves from further exacerbating it. 

Until that time comes? Try your best to avoid single-use plastics and only shop from companies you know care about the environment.

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