Plastic pollution is wreaking havoc in our oceans and disrupting the delicate balance of marine ecosystems

Sea of concern: the growing threat of ocean plastic

How plastics and microplastics along the food chain affect us all.

Our planet's oceans are facing an unprecedented crisis, resulting from plastic pollution that disrupts marine ecosystems. A variety of marine life is under assault, not just from visible plastic debris, but also from less obvious threats like microplastics. This issue presents a dual danger, affecting both marine life and human health.

The dates and data in the text are valid as of September 2023, when the text was published.

Ocean pollution broadly endangers both marine organisms and human health. This issue has steadily evolved into a critical emergency that looms ominously over marine ecosystems, putting both sea life and human well-being at risk.

The culprit? Plastic pollution. Given that a staggering 390 million tonnes of plastic are produced each year for multiple uses (as of 2021), it's hardly surprising that this man-made material has inflicted widespread damage on our oceans. For perspective, this amount is roughly equal to the weight of the entire human population.  

Alarming metrics of the plastic crisis

The stark reality is that a minimum of 14 million tonnes of plastic find their way into the oceans each year. This places plastic waste squarely as the dominant form of pollution in marine environments, accounting for an astonishing 80% of marine litter. This debris not only floats on the ocean's surface but also settles in its deepest trenches. Beaches across all continents are experiencing this onslaught of plastic, with especially harmful levels seen near tourist hotspots and populated areas.

The sources of this environmental devastation are varied and primarily stem from land-based activities such as urban runoff and precipitation. Meanwhile, ocean-based contributors include the fishing industry, maritime operations, and aquaculture. Natural elements like solar UV radiation and ocean currents also contribute to the problem by fragmenting plastics into smaller particles, known as microplastics and nanoplastics, each of which is even smaller than a bread crumb.

At least 14 million tonnes of plastics enter the ocean every year

At least 14 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year.

"At least 800 marine species worldwide are affected by marine litter, which is up to 80% plastic."

Essential facts about plastics and microplastics

Vast stretches of our oceans have effectively become repositories for discarded plastic, commonly classified as marine litter. This accumulating debris is altering marine ecosystems at an unsettling rate and resulting in far-reaching environmental consequences.

Plastic, a synthetic polymer derived from petroleum, is versatile enough for numerous applications. Alarmingly, about half of all produced plastic is designed for single-use items like shopping bags, cups, and straws. These items, when improperly disposed of, become significant hazards to both the environment and biodiversity.

The invisible threat: Microplastics

One of the most alarming forms of plastic pollution is microplastics. These minute particles, smaller than 5 millimetres, may be easily overlooked but have a disproportionately devastating impact on marine life

Microplastics originate either from the degradation of larger plastic items or are intentionally created for use in cosmetics and industrial applications. They enter marine ecosystems from multiple avenues, including land runoff, sewage systems, and the decomposition of waste. Marine animals at every level of the food chain, from plankton to apex predators, ingest these tiny but harmful particles.

Microplastics are taken up by marine animals at all levels of the food chain, from plankton to large predators.

Microplastics are taken up by marine animals at all levels of the food chain, from plankton to large predators

Dire impact of plastic ingestion on marine animals

The implications of plastic pollution for marine life are grave. Accidental ingestion of these materials compromises the health of marine organisms, leading to internal injuries, digestive blockages, and in extreme cases, death. Beyond the physical harm, the bioaccumulation of plastic residues in the tissues and organs of marine animals can result in long-lasting toxic effects, disrupting their reproductive and metabolic systems.

Our oceans, once teeming with life and beauty, now exhibit the wounds of a severe affliction: plastic pollution. The empirical evidence is compelling, with heart-wrenching stories echoing from the ocean's depths. Cases range from a gray whale found stranded in Seattle, its stomach filled with kilograms of plastic waste, to a young harbour seal in Scotland whose life was cut short by a mere piece of plastic packaging lodged in its digestive system.

Most vulnerable marine animals

The omnipresent plastic waste in our oceans constitutes a grave danger to a wide range of marine species. Among the most at-risk are sea turtles. Mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, a mainstay of their diet, these turtles often consume the plastic. The result is gut blockage that frequently leads to a prolonged, agonizing demise.

Likewise, marine mammals such as seals and whales are not spared from the impact of plastic pollution. They often become entangled in abandoned fishing gear, commonly referred to as "ghost nets," leading to severe injuries and sometimes even death by drowning. Ingesting plastic debris also poses a significant threat. A case in point is the heartbreaking story of a whale that was found dead with more than 40 kilograms of plastic in its stomach, underscoring the lethal effects of plastic waste in marine ecosystems.

The repercussions of plastic pollution extend far and wide, affecting a plethora of marine species. From elegant seabirds to awe-inspiring whales, numerous creatures inadvertently ingest or become ensnared by plastic debris. Tragically, these animals often mistake plastics for food. Consuming these indigestible materials leads to a host of severe issues: starvation, internal injuries, reduced mobility, and infection. Additionally, floating plastics serve as a breeding ground for invasive species, thereby further destabilizing marine biodiversity and the intricate balance of oceanic food chains.

The ubiquitous presence of plastic waste in the ocean poses a significant threat to the survival of many marine species

The ubiquitous presence of plastic waste in the ocean poses a significant threat to the survival of many marine species / Shutterstock

YACHTING.COM TIP:  In a startling scientific revelation, it has been found that nearly half of the global sea turtle population has consumed plastic. The irony is tragic: these turtles are essentially starving while their bellies appear full due to ingested plastic. They are, in essence, the unwitting victims of plastic's deceptive allure. The impact extends to their nesting grounds as well. Plastic waste in the sand can alter its temperature, thus affecting the conditions essential for the incubation of turtle eggs.

The plastic problem on our plates: human health

The detrimental effects of plastic in oceans are not confined to marine ecosystems; they have significant implications for human health as well. Accumulated microplastics in the marine food chain eventually find their way to our dinner tables, often through seafood. Recent studies suggest that the ingestion of these microplastics may pose health risks to humans.

The concern goes beyond just seafood consumption. Microplastics have been identified in everyday items such as tap water, beer, and even table salt. These pollutants have made their way to the farthest corners of our planet, including Arctic waters. The hazardous chemicals often used in the production of plastics, including some with carcinogenic properties, can disrupt the human endocrine system. This disruption can unlock a myriad of health issues: developmental delays, reproductive complications, and disorders of the nervous and immune systems, impacting both human beings and wildlife alike.

The ripple effect of plastic pollution on tourism

The presence of plastic waste negatively impacts the visual appeal of tourist hotspots, resulting in decreased tourism revenue.

Tourism, a key contributor to many economies, is also vulnerable to the growing issue of plastic pollution. Idyllic locations tainted by plastic debris experience diminished attractiveness, leading to reduced visitor numbers and, consequently, lower revenue. The financial burden is further heightened by the costs associated with cleaning and upkeep. The ramifications are wide-ranging, affecting not just the economic landscape but also local wildlife and the emotional wellness of both residents and tourists.

Plastic waste damages the aesthetic value of tourist destinations

Plastic waste damages the aesthetic value of tourist destinations / Shutterstock

How do we address the plastic crisis?

Immediate and targeted action is crucial on multiple fronts to tackle this urgent environmental calamity. Steps should be taken to limit and regulate the production and use of single-use plastics. Public awareness campaigns must be launched to spotlight the destructive consequences of plastic pollution on both marine life and human health. Additionally, it's imperative to enhance recycling initiatives and waste management strategies to ensure plastics are correctly disposed of and kept away from our oceans.

In the words of Sylvia Earle, a well-known marine biologist and oceanographer: "With every drop of water you drink, with every breath you take, you are connected to the sea. It doesn't matter where on Earth you live.". It is our shared responsibility to protect the marine ecosystem from the dangers of plastic pollution, for the sake of marine animals and our own survival.

Ocean health and protection is our shared responsibility

The role of plastic production in climate change shouldn't be overlooked. The emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane occurs not just during production but also when plastic waste is incinerated. This exacerbates climate change and adds another layer of complexity to the far-reaching issue of plastic pollution.

Highlighted by the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, there is an immediate need to safeguard our oceans and the biodiversity they host. This compelling directive has galvanized global efforts, most urgently in the domain of curbing and eliminating marine pollution, a category that unfortunately includes ubiquitous marine litter.

the plastics production cycle contributes to climate change

Plastics production cycle contributes to climate change / Shutterstock

"Efforts should be made to respect and strengthen existing international legislative frameworks," the report states. Initiatives such as the 1972 London Convention, the 1996 London Protocol and the 1978 MARPOL Protocol are foundational in combating this emergency. However, the onus doesn't solely lie on international accords. National governments should also look into implementing extended producer responsibility measures, which offer cost-effective and innovative approaches to waste management.

A comprehensive approach is needed. Collaboration among governments, research organizations, and industries is key to redesigning products and revisiting their life cycles, aiming to minimize the influx of microplastics from sources like synthetic fabrics, plastic pellets, and tires. Consumers, too, have a critical role to assume. Transitioning to sustainable consumption practices relies on comprehensive solutions that span product design, infrastructure improvements, and modifications in consumer behavior.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Funding for research and innovation is most important. Policymakers, manufacturers, and consumers alike are calling for evidence-based solutions to drive technological advancements, behavioral shifts, and policy reforms. With existing methodologies to identify, quantify, and tackle pollution sources, well-funded research can act as a guiding light in navigating these complex challenges.

A call to action for the seas and humanity

The crisis of marine plastic pollution is a pressing issue that requires immediate and decisive action. It's not only marine life that's at risk —humanity itself stands on the brink. The choices we make now will shape the future health of our oceans, the vibrancy of marine ecosystems, and the well-being of generations to come. The ocean's muted plea for help can no longer be ignored; it's time for concerted efforts to reverse the cycle of destruction. Keep this in mind the next time you set sail on a charter boat; the ocean's health is our collective responsibility.Overall, the marine plastic pollution crisis requires immediate and decisive action. It is not just a threat to marine life, it is a threat to humanity as a whole. The decisions we make today will determine the health of our oceans, the vitality of our ecosystems and the well-being of future generations. It is time to heed the ocean's silent cry for help and work tirelessly to turn the tide of destruction. Think about that the next time you sail on a charter boat.

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FAQs about ocean pollution