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Plastics and Other Litter


Why Plastic Pollution Is A Concern

In recent history, there has been a tremendous increase in the global production of plastic. In the 1950s, the annual production was 1.5 million tons. By 2011, that number had spiked to 280 million tons. [2] Because such a high percentage of this plastic is not disposed of properly, large quantities end up in the oceans around the world. Macroscopic plastic, the relatively little bit of plastic that is visible on the shore often fools people to think that the issue of debris and litter in the ocean is trivial, especially given the vastness of the oceans. However, the overwhelming majority of the plastic goes unseen as it gets trapped in oceanic currents, such as the North Pacific Gyre.

Up to date, 11 billion pieces of plastic has been found in oceans around the globe. These indestructible plastics range anywhere from cotton swabs, bottles, food wrappers, and toys. Main areas of plastic pollution include Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar. It is currently believed that there is not a single mile within any of our oceans that do not contain some form of plastic debris. This plastic will go on to impact the life, habitats, and survival of hundreds of marine species. [3]

Sources of Debris

It is estimated that roughly 80% of the litter in the ocean comes from land-based sources including tourist-related waste, sewage and street litter, and fishery related debris. The remaining 20% of oceanic litter is estimated to come from ocean-based means, including waste from ships and fishermen.[5]

No matter the source, this plastic litter and debris can greatly impact and interrupt the daily living of coral around the world. Plastics in the ocean can entangle, snare, and pull at coral. When there is plastic in the water, corals are extremely likely to be damaged. For example, in a study of 338 corals which were exposed to plastic fishing gear, 69% were physically damaged. The damage is similar to a wound on human skin and increases the likelihood of coral disease. Additionally, corals need sunlight to properly photosynthesize, and plastic can cover or smother corals, blocking the needed sunlight. This contributes to the bleaching and death of photosynthetic algae. [6]

Chemical Make-ups and Effects of Plastic

Synthetic plastics are composed of polymers, or long chains of similar chemical units bonded together. These bonds are far too strong to be broken down by organisms, including through digestion. Instead, the plastic that ends up in the ocean photo-degrades, meaning the sun breaks down - but does not completely deteriorate chemically - the litter into smaller pieces, making animals and marine life more susceptible to mistake it for food. [7] While research on the topic has become a relatively recent topic of interest, we now know that some plastics, as they degrade, leach chemicals into the surrounding environment. The toxins are known as endocrine disruptors, a term that refers to "a hormonal imbalance initiated by exposure to a pollutant which leads to alterations in the development, growth, and/or reproduction in an organism or its progeny." [8]

Environmental Impacts

Plastic pollution costs $13 billion in economic damage to marine ecosystems each year. This estimate is believed to largely underestimate the overall cost of plastic production and result of air and water pollution. Two large areas impacted by plastic pollution are the fishing and tourist industries.

Marine litter is estimated to cost individual Scottish fishing vessels an average of ~ US$24,000 per year due to lost earnings from time spent cleaning nets, costs of repairs to nets and other gear, the value of dumped catch, and the cost of fouling incidents.An extrapolation of the impacts experienced by Scottish fishers to the whole EU fishing fleet would suggest a loss of US$82 million a year, ~ 1% of total revenues in 2010. Ironically, fishers, themselves, produce much of the fishing-based pollution that affects their own job industry.

Almost $1 billion in tourism revenue is lost annually. Local economies that receive billions from tourists who like to visit reefs or engage in aquatic activities are being threatened by coral bleaching, algal blooms, and contaminated waters. One study estimated that marine litter may reduce tourism in Brazil by 39%, representing losses of up to US$ 8.5 million a year. In 2011, heavy rains washed a lot of marine litter onto the beaches of Goeje Island, South Korea, a popular tourist destination. This led to 500,000 fewer visitors in 2011 than in 2010 and led to a loss in revenue of ~ US$30 million. Litter along the Skagerrak coast of Sweden is estimated to have reduced tourism between 1 and 5%, leading to an estimated annual loss of ~ US$22.5 million. Within the United States, New York and New Jersey have lost billions of dollars due to lower tourism rates and decreased housing values. [10]

Increased Risk of Coral Disease

Plastic objects found in the ocean are believed to increase the risk of coral diseases such as white band syndrome. Plastic is believed not to cause immediate effects on coral reefs, but instead cause chronic impacts lasting over an extent of time. Dr. Joleah Lamb related coral disease to gangrene in humans-- once the tissue has died, it is not coming back. This increased risk in coral diseases can range anywhere from 4-89%. The exact reason of how plastic can cause coral diseases remains unknown to scientists and researchers today. Some believe that it is correlated to the transport of bacteria and pathogens to new marine environments through the movement of items such as bottle caps, cups, and toothbrushes. Others believe it may be related to chemicals, blocking of sunlight, and increased susceptibility to bleaching that may make them more vulnerable physically. [11]

Effect on Marine Life

Some researchers believe that plastic within our oceans will outweigh all fish within the next thirty years or so. Almost 700 marine species have been affected-- including, but not limited to, fish, turtles, whales, dolphins, seals, and birds.[13] Plastic debris can cause drowning, strangulation, suffocation, and starvation among marine wildlife.

Among the animals most affected are sea lions and seals. It has been estimated that up to 58% of sea lions and seal populations have have been affected by entanglement due to litter in the sea. Remains of fishing net and lines have been reported to cut off flippers and to scar dolphins, manatees, whales, and sea turtles. It is expected that by 2050, 99% of all seabirds will have accidentally consumed plastic in their life. [14] As plastic builds up in a bird's stomach, it creates the illusion that the bird is full, and thus the bird fails to put on necessary fat supplies for reproduction and migration. Ingested plastic can block the digestive tract eventually leading to starvation. Up to 80% of sea turtles that are found dead are reported to have consumed plastic and other debris. Yet another concern is the ability of plastic to introduce alien species to a region. Because of plastic's ability to float very slowly - at a speed that could allow time for acclimation - small marine species could use the litter as an oceanic transport vehicle, introducing alien species to a non-native region.[5]

However, the impact does not end with marine life. Humans may become affected due to the consumption of fish in many diets. Fish can ingest up to 24,000 tons of plastic annually [13]; this can alter the natural food chain and possibly conclude with humans eating fish that have consumed plastic particles. An example of plastic’s deadly impact is a story of a whale that washed up dead on the shore near Seattle, Washington in 2010. The whale was found to have over 20 plastic bags, golf balls, and other rubbish in it’s stomach contents.[14]

Adaptations Made by Marine Life

Some marine species have been able to adapt to the pollution in their environment. However, these adaptations take a long time to reach the next generation and may lead them choosing survival over other vital factors, such as reproduction rates. Examples of fish adaptations include two species: the Poecillia Mexicana fish and the Killfish. Poecillia Mexicana fish have learned to survive in hydrogen sulfide polluted waters in Mexico. These fish lower their energy demands for survival, need less oxygen consumption, and grow in smaller sizes. [15]

Similarly, the killfish are able to live in extremely toxic, contaminated waters. The fish become more tolerant to toxins by making their neuron receptors less sensitive to the current environment. However, mutation of signaling pathways and genes do not occur quickly-- it took at least 50 years for the killfish to be able to adapt their pathways to pass on to the future generation.[16]

Degradation Times of Various Litter

  • Glass Bottle: 1 million years.
  • Monofilament Fishing Line: 600 years.
  • Plastic Beverage Bottles: 450 years.
  • Disposable Diapers: 450 years.
  • Aluminum Can: 80-200 years.
  • Foamed Plastic Buoy: 80 years.
  • Tine Cans: 50 years.
  • Leather: 50 years.
  • Plastic bag: 10-20 years.
  • Cigarette Butt: 1-5 years.
  • Apple Core: 2 months.
  • Newspaper: 6 weeks.
  • Paper Towel: 2-4 weeks. [18]

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Located in the North Pacific Ocean between 135°W to 155°W and 35°N and 42°N is a mass of plastic known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or the Pacific Trash Vortex, was predicted by the Northern Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1988 by scientists studying water conditions. [20] With the understanding of the oceanic currents and knowledge of the pollution, their hypothesis was proved correct, and in fact turned out to be more serious than originally believed. Since the area is not visible from satellite or air, it can only be estimated that the patch ranges from 270,000 sq mi to more than 5,800,000 sq mi (roughly one and a half times the size of the continental United States). This discrepancy is largely in part due to the obscurity between boundaries and the definition of what is considered to be a "high level" of pelagic debris, especially in a time when pollution and plastic in the oceans is omnipresent.

While its name may be misleading, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not actually a visible patch of floating garbage. In fact, one could sail through this area without being aware. Rather it is called this because of the exceptionally high concentrations of pelagic plastic - or plastic found in the pelagic zone of the ocean - that has been trapped in the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. A gyre is a vortex that slowly accumulates waste material because of the rotation of ocean currents and wind movements.[21] [20] Despite the relatively small size of these plastics, they are still known to have a dramatic impact on birds and other wildlife.

Current Ways to Reduce Every Day Plastic Use and Debris

While removing the plastic that is already in the oceans is going to be difficult, there are many ways that people around the world can reduce the amount of litter that ends up there. Some potential options are:

  • Recycling plastic bottles and bags – Recycling these items means that they stay in circulation and out of the ocean. Reusing grocery bags or bottles reduces the need for them and can lower global plastic production.
  • Decrease dependency on plastic – Carrying a reusable water bottle rather than using a disposable one can dramatically cut down on the amount of litter in the ocean. It is estimated that of all the disposable waters used, 80% of them become litter. Similarly, using reusable Tupperware or glass containers can reduce dependency on plastic bags.
  • Increase penalties for littering in the ocean – Increased fines paired with proper enforcement can create incentive to properly dispose of waste.
  • Manual removal of large pieces of debris – While this is not necessarily the most effective method, it can be used to clean up beaches and the surrounding areas, saving at least some wildlife.

Ireland's Successes

On March 4th, 2002, Ireland introduced a tax on plastic bags. The levy charged consumers 15 cents per bag at stores. Aimed to change the habits of consumers and decrease plastic bag usage, the tax proved to be exceptionally successful by decreasing an estimated 328 bags per capita to 21 bags per capita. On July 1st, 2007, the fee was increased to 22 cents per bag in an effort to further reduce the dependency.[22] The law does not make a distinction between biodegradable bags and non-biodegradable ones, due to the fact that biodegradable still take time to break down and thus could be dangerous to wildlife. Reusable shopping bags have now largely replaced Ireland's reliance on plastic bags. [23]

Solutions: A Policy and Political Prospective

While technological advances are extremely important and required to enforce a more plastic-free environment, the political prospective must be addressed to fully enforce and maintain the conservation acts made by environmental scientists. There is not one solution to solve plastic pollution but, more or less, a chain of events that will kick start whole communities, and eventually nations, to begin the process of using more environmentally friendly products and limit their waste production.

The first, and arguably the most important factor, is education. By educating people on how plastic not only affects reefs but the consequences of losing reefs, individual actors and states can implement policies. Because plastic pollution affects all aspects of the ocean (fish, coral, etc.), this affects fishing. Economies, specifically island economies, that rely on the fishing industry will see an overall decline in fish and the abundance of plastic can cause ships to malfunction/sink as plastic can get into the engines of the boat. While education by itself can be less effective, by implementing multiple levels of pressure, local and regional governments are more likely to become more aware of the issue and take actions against plastic in the oceans

The next course of action in implementing policies that maintain and enforce regulations on plastic in a community. Many governments and companies have taken action to reduce plastic. Companies such as Starbucks and U.S. states such as California have begun to completely rid themselves of plastic including the plastic straw ban and the plastic bag ban. In a capitalist economy, it is as important to stress the negative effects of plastic pollution to individual governments as it is to address these same issues to companies who control a large sum of the wealth in many first-world, high-plastic producing countries. There needs to be an incentive for companies to make the switch and reduce their plastic production or they will not change their actions. As mentioned above, certain economies that rely on ocean travel can decline due to plastic affecting the fishing market and the actual ship itself. This kind of negative, economic repercussion can lead to policies designated by a state, group of states in an international government organization (IGOs), or a company to provide protective policies for their economies by limiting plastic usage, eliminating plastic dumping, and properly recycling plastic products to counteract the future consequences while not destroying the economy and state of living for those living in that country.

Finally, a tool used by many political scientists and environmental lobbyists is “naming and shaming”. This term just means that a group of people advocating for a specific end goal will go to other groups that do not support their goals and coax them using different incentives (i.e. money, trading, territorial deals, etc.). Many environmental lobbyists, including those involved in the Montreal Accords, the Paris Agreement, and the Kyoto Protocol, used these policies to get multiple countries on different levels of development, allied agreements, and domestic affairs regarding the situation at hand to join their movement. A similar process can be applied to plastic pollution and the stopping of plastic pollution in coral reef ecosystems.

By looking at this from not only a technological standpoint, scientists and politicians can work together to limit plastic production in not only with local or regional governments but on the international level.

Potential Ways to Clean the Oceans in the Future

A discoverer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Charles Moore, estimates that it would take 79,000 years to remediate the issue. Boyan Slat, however, a Dutch inventor and environmentalist, has come up with a way that, he believes, can use the oceans to clean themselves. In his TED Talk, he introduces a concept that would use oceanic currents to trap marine litter so that it can be collected and removed in just five years. By fixing 24 self-supportive floating platforms to the seabed, attaching nets between them, and allowing the gyres to carry the litter to nets, the trapped plastic could be retrieved and sold for more than the estimated cost of the project.[25]

Additional Teaching Materials

[[1]] --cited brochure

[[2]] --cited PPT


  2. Depledge, M.h., F. Galgani, C. Panti, I. Caliani, S. Casini, and M.c. Fossi. "Plastic Litter in the Sea." Marine Environmental Research 92 (2013): 279-81. Plastic Litter in the Sea. 3 Oct. 2013. Web. 3 Apr. 2015.
  3. Gabbatiss Science Correspondent @josh_gabbatiss, Josh. “Plastic Is 'Killing Corals' by Increasing Risk of Disease in Reefs, Say Scientists.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 26 Jan. 2018,
  5. 5.0 5.1 Allsopp, Michelle, Adam Walters, David Santillo, and Paul Johnston. "Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans." Plastic Debris in the World’s OceansAt Least 267 Different Species Are Known to Have Suffered from (n.d.): n. pag. United Nations Environment Programme. Greenpeace. Web. 4 Apr. 2015.
  6. Joyce, Christopher. “Plastic Pollution Is Killing Coral Reefs, 4-Year Study Finds.” NPR, NPR, 25 Jan. 2018,
  7. De Wolff, Kim. "Gyre Plastic: Science, Circulation and the Matter of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch." Order No. 3670439 University of California, San Diego, 2014. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.
  8. Walker, Colin H. "Chapter 15: Endocrine Disruptors." Ecotoxicology: Effects of Pollutants on the Natural Environment. Boca Raton: CRC, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014. N. pag. Print.
  10. Carr, Sarah. “What Is Marine Plastic Pollution Costing Us? The Impacts of Marine.” The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management (MEAM), Open Communications for the Ocean , 10 May 2019,
  11. Joyce, Christopher. “Plastic Pollution Is Killing Coral Reefs, 4-Year Study Finds.” NPR, NPR, 25 Jan. 2018,
  13. 13.0 13.1 “Ocean Plastics Pollution.” Biological Diversity,
  14. 14.0 14.1 Reddy, Simon. “Plastic Pollution Affects Sea Life Throughout the Ocean.” The Pew Charitable Trusts, 24 Sept. 2018,
  15. Page, Michael Le. “Fish Rapidly Adapt to Pollution Thousands of Times Lethal Levels.” New Scientist, 8 Dec. 2016,
  16. Borowiec, Brittney. “How Animals Adapt to Polluted Environments.” Pacific Standard, 21 Nov. 2017,
  18. "Time It Takes for Garbage to Decompose in the Environment:." (n.d.): n. pag. New Hampshire Department of Environmental Science. Web. 4 Apr. 2015.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Zimring, Carl A., and William L. Rathje. Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage. 2 vols. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2012. SAGE knowledge. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.
  21. Moore, Charles. Plastic Ocean : How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans. New York: Avery, 2011. Print.
  22. McKenzie-Mohr, Doug. Social Marketing to Protect the Environment : What Works. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, 2012. Print.
  23. "Plastic Bags." Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2015.
  25. Slat, Boyan. "How Oceans Can Clean Themselves." Tedx Delft. Delft. Tedx Talks. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.