Ocean plastic is a big problem that’s getting bigger every year. Ocean plastics have formed enormous garbage patches twice the size of Texas, killed millions of marine animals every year, and microplastics are now polluting everything on the planet, including our own bloodstreams. Increasingly, people are wondering how to reduce plastic in the ocean. Where does ocean plastic come from? What can be done about it?
Where Does Ocean Plastic Come From?
To reduce plastic in the ocean, it’s helpful to first know where it comes from. About 80% of plastic in the ocean comes from rivers and coastlines. About 20% comes from fishing nets, ropes and other fishing equipment. Some rivers put much more plastic into the ocean than others. Rivers that are close to large cities as well as coastlines are more likely to produce more ocean plastics.
Countries with more coastline, particularly island nations, as well as countries with fewer resources to securely contain landfills, tend to put more plastic into the ocean. Riverways putting the most plastic into the ocean lay in the Philippines, India, Malaysia, China and Indonesia. However, clean waterways are important in every environment; removing plastics from waterways is never a pointless act and is always important to the people, plants and animals that live in the area.
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Who Makes the Plastic?
We can estimate how ocean plastic gets into the ocean, but where does this plastic actually come from? About 100 petrochemical companies produce 90% of the plastic in the world every day. The top 20, with U.S.-based ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical Company taking first and third place, produce more than half of all plastic. These companies earn billions in revenue annually; they have the resources to move away from plastics, but choose not to.
The top five raw plastic producers are:
- Dow Chemical Company
- Indorama Ventures
- Saudi Aramco
These plastics turn into single-use products that end up in insecure landfills in vulnerable areas, and ultimately in the ocean. Millions of tons of these plastics also pile up in landfills globally every year. This plastic production also puts millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually.
Who Makes the Plastic Products?
Petrochemical companies produce the raw plastic, but raw plastic generally doesn’t end up in oceans. So who is buying the raw plastic and turning it into materials that end up in the ocean?
The top five producers of plastic products commonly found in the ocean are:
Break Free From Plastic, a citizen action initiative that documents plastic pollution and advocates for plastic reduction, collected 346,494 pieces of plastic from 55 countries in their 2020 plastic audit. In their annual audits, the same multinational corporations show up year after year as the largest plastic polluters; Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, Unilever, and Mondelez. Like the businesses that produce raw plastic, these businesses also earn billions each year from consumers all over the world; they have the resources to use plastic alternatives, but choose not to.
What Can Individuals Do About Ocean Plastic?
With all of this in mind, the best ways to reduce plastic in the ocean help with the following:
- Reducing plastic and demand for plastic
- Cleaning up plastic and supporting organizations that do
- Supporting legislation to reduce plastic and encourage safe alternatives
- Speaking up about the problems with plastic and the organizations that produce them
How to Reduce Plastic in the Ocean
1. Reduce Single-Use Plastics
Single-use plastics make up about 80% of plastic waste in the ocean. While avoiding these items might seem like an uphill battle, collective consumer action is critical to influence big businesses to move away from plastics. As long as consumers find single-use plastics acceptable, companies will continue to produce them.
According to the U.N. Environment, these are the most common single-use plastics found in the environment. This also includes ways you can replace these.
- Cigarette butts: It’s no mystery that smoking is bad for your health, but if you smoke, keep your neighboring animals and plants in mind and dispose of cigarette butts in a trash can, not on the street or sidewalk.
- Plastic drinking bottles: Get a reusable water bottle that you love, and fill up at refillable water stations.
- Plastic bottle caps: A reusable water bottle can help with this type of plastic pollution, too. If soda is more tempting to you, consider purchasing a soda can instead of a bottle (aluminum is easily recyclable, while plastics are not).
- Food wrappers: If you have time, wrap snacks in parchment paper, fabric, or reusable wax cloths at home. If not, look for snacks in paper, cardboard, glass or metal containers.
- Plastic grocery bags: You can use almost anything as a plastic grocery bag alternative, from a fabric shopping bag to a backpack to a pillow case. Don’t be afraid to get creative!
- Plastic lids: Pack snacks and lunches at home and use your own reusable containers, or look for metal, glass, or paper packaging alternatives.
- Straws and stirrers: Bring your own reusable straw or stirrer, or forgo them entirely if you can.
- Other plastic bags: Plastic bags are everywhere. Bring your own, avoid the bags if you can, or reuse them to reduce the total bags overall. Refill your cooler or another container with ice at an ice vending machine to forgo the plastic ice bag.
- Foam take-away containers: Your own reusable containers will be more sturdy than foam boxes. You might also look for restaurants using waxed paper or cardboard boxes instead.
There are many ways to reduce single-use plastics at home, and many of these can help you save money too. Independent bulk stores, companies making zero-waste products, and DIY cleaners can also help you avoid buying from the biggest plastic polluters, like snack food giant Mondelez or cleaning product giant Unilever.
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2. Support Plastic Alternatives
Many businesses are producing plastic alternatives that can take the place of many single-use plastics and won’t end up in the ocean. Many of these businesses are small; they produce plastic-free clothes, shoes, backpacks, or other items. In other cases, larger companies are experimenting with alternative packaging, such as consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble’s paper deodorant tubes. Other companies make long-lasting alternatives to single-use plastics. Still other companies are developing innovative plastic alternatives like edible cutlery and water bottles, bags made from starch, and plastic-like materials made from algae, sunflower hulls, olive pits, and mushrooms.
If you have the means, supporting these companies can be a fun and interesting way to avoid plastic and help reduce plastic in the ocean. For plastic alternatives to become normalized and adopted by larger companies, they’ll need support from consumers first.
3. Hold Businesses Accountable
As previously stated, the businesses that have the greatest resources to research, adopt, and use plastic alternatives choose not to. These companies are investing billions in new plastics and plastic products that will pollute the ocean and the world, and will continue to do so if they are not held accountable by citizens and governments.
International advocacy network Greenpeace outlines several ways to hold businesses accountable, including adding signatures to a eco-responsibility petition, sharing excessive plastic use and tagging plastic polluters on social media, resisting local plastics and oil production initiatives, conducting clean-ups and plastics audits, and more.
4. Support Initiatives to Reduce Plastic
Rules and laws regulating plastics can help reduce plastic in the ocean at the highest levels. Supporting initiatives to reduce plastic can make serious impacts, though these take collective action to work.
Some of these initiatives may seem inconvenient at first, such as bans or taxes on plastic bags, microbeads, or single-use plastics. Other initiatives, such as taxing the biggest plastic polluters, simply face an uphill battle against powerful opponents. But supporting initiatives to reduce or clean up plastics, or encourage plastic alternatives, are helpful at local, state-wide, national or international levels. Learn more about these initiatives, and consider joining the conversation around these, or even start one of these initiatives to solve a big plastic problem in your area.
5. Eat Less Seafood
While 80% of plastics come from things like bottles and wrappers, 20% comes from nets and fishing equipment. Besides contributing to plastic pollution and killing sea creatures, industrial fishing has many other disastrous effects on wildlife. Sea creatures of every type, including many endangered species, are caught and killed through trawling and longline fishing. These creatures are bycatch—they are not the intended targets of the fishing boat—and are not even used for food. Many fishing practices also devastate critical ocean habitats, as well as the coastal peoples who live nearby.
Seafood alternatives can mimic the taste and texture of seafood, with no risk of bycatch or deepsea trawling. In many recipes, it’s easy to trade out seafood for some combination of mushrooms, chickpeas, artichoke hearts, jackfruit, seaweed, soy sauce, and other ingredients. Eating seafood as a sometimes-food can also help you reduce your intake of mercury and microplastics.
6. Support Organizations Cleaning Up Ocean Plastic
Many organizations, large and small, acknowledge the dire situation facing our oceans, and the need to reduce plastic in the ocean. They’re collecting ocean plastic, auditing what they find to hold companies responsible, disposing of plastic waste properly, and even recycling or repurposing the plastic into new items. Support the organizations cleaning up the oceans and show that their efforts matter.
7. Arrange a Coastal or River Clean-Up
Oceans, rivers and lakes are all connected. If you join or arrange a riverside or coastal clean-up, you’re directly preventing plastic from getting into the ocean. Even if your riverway or coast generally isn’t a big source of ocean plastic, you’ll be rallying with like-minded others and you’ll be cleaning up the area for the plants and animals that need it to live.
8. Fight Eco-Anxiety and Climate Depression
Anxiety and depression related to environmental collapse can make everything seem hopeless. Millions of people, especially younger people, are struggling with the grief, anger, and helplessness related to environmental disaster. These feelings encourage some to take action. For others, the situation can seem too big, the solutions too small, and the actions too late.
To cope with these feelings, similar to coping with death, it’s understandable that many people may focus their energy on acceptance, and don’t have energy left for action, even for the actions that can have real effects on the future. This is why fighting eco-anxiety and climate depression are essential to take any positive environmental action.
The following can help you fight eco-anxiety and climate depression, and help you feel more optimistic about positive actions:
- Rally with others: Rallying with like-minded people who also care about ocean plastic and the environment in general will help you from feeling isolated.
- Enjoy the outdoors: Remember that your efforts matter, and why they matter. The outdoors are beautiful, and can help to promote feelings of calm and peace.
- Limit social media use: Social media can be a great tool for collective action. It can also be a source of doomscrolling and depression. To fight the addictive nature of social media, it’s important to be very conscious of what you’re reading, why, how much and how you’re feeling.
- Limit news consumption: The point of the news is to draw attention to problems. However, climate news can quickly become overwhelming. Again, be conscious of why, how, and how much you’re reading. Ask yourself if what you’re reading is informing you of a new position and helping your decision-making, or simply making you feel depressed.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle: A healthy diet with vitamins and minerals, regular exercise, plenty of sleep, and limited alcohol intake are all essential to your mental health.
- Take a break: If you’re organizing and taking part in environmental action often, but you’re often feeling burned out, remember that it’s okay—essential, even—to take a break.
- Journal: Keep track of your actions, feelings, and thoughts with a journal. Be careful not to let this become a source of rumination, however.
- See a counselor: If you’re often feeling hopeless, sad, angry, lethargic, anxious, or ill, consider talking to a counselor or therapist, and discussing other strategies for managing your anxiety or depression.
9. Spread the Word
Reducing the use of plastic, cleaning up ocean plastic, and finding replacements for plastics is an enormous task. But for anything to happen, awareness is critical.
If reducing plastic in the ocean is important to you, tell others about the actions that you’re taking and why. Remember that we all have limited mental capacity to deal with any issue, including environmental issues, so some people may not be interested. However, millions of others share your concerns, and spreading the word can help to make change happen.