Photo: We have to stop filling and killing the oceans with plastic

(Credit: Kevin Krejci via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation's Senior Editor Ian Hanington

Eight million tonnes. That's how much plastic we're tossing into the oceans every year! University of Georgia environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck says it's enough to line up five grocery bags of trash on every foot of coastline in the world.

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A study published by Jambeck and colleagues in the journal Science on February 12 examined how 192 coastal countries disposed of plastic waste in 2010. The report, "Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean", estimates that of 275 million tonnes of plastic generated, about eight million (based on a midpoint estimate of 4.8 million to 12.7 million tonnes) ends up in the seas — blown from garbage dumps into rivers and estuaries, discarded on beaches or along coastlines and carried to the oceans.

China tops the list of 20 countries responsible for 83 per cent of "mismanaged plastic" in the oceans, sending between 1.32 and 3.53 million tonnes into the seas. The U.S., which has better waste-management systems, is number 20 on the list, responsible for 0.04 to 0.11 million tonnes. Some countries in the top 20 don't even have formal waste-management systems. The fear is that, as human populations grow, the amount of plastic going into the oceans will increase dramatically if countries don't improve waste-management systems and practices — and reduce the amount of plastic they produce and use.

Scientists don't know where most plastic ends up or what overall effect it's having on marine life and food supplies. They do know that massive islands of plastic and other waste — some as large as Saskatchewan — swirl in five gyres in the north and south Pacific, north and south Atlantic and Indian oceans. But that's only a small amount of the total.

Plastic is everywhere in our seas. It accumulates on the sea floor and in sediments, washes up on coastlines and is taken up by fish and other sea creatures. It affects birds, fish, mammals and other marine life. It eventually breaks down into smaller bits, which can look like fish eggs and get eaten by marine animals, but it never biodegrades. Those particles, or microplastics, just keep building up. They also absorb and concentrate toxic chemicals, poisoning the animals that consume them. Studies show that 44 per cent of all seabird species have plastic in and around their bodies, and fish, birds, turtles and whales often become fatally entangled in plastic waste.

Even the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went down over the South China Sea in March 2014, was confounded when investigators looking for crash evidence kept finding plastic debris.

Humans depend on healthy oceans for food, water, air, recreation and transportation. Oceans contain more than 97 per cent of the planet's water and produce more than half the oxygen we breathe. They also absorb carbon — important to reducing global warming. Half the world's people live in coastal zones, and ocean-based businesses contribute more than $500 billion a year to the global economy.

What we do to the oceans and the life therein, we do to ourselves. So what can we do to keep them — and us — healthy?

The report's authors say reducing "mismanaged" plastic waste, regulating the amount of plastics that enter the waste stream and improving waste-disposal methods in the top 20 offending countries are all essential. But, Jambeck notes, "It's not just about improving the infrastructure in other countries. There are things we can do in our daily lives to reduce the amount of waste plastic we all produce."

Canada's relatively good waste-disposal and recycling systems keep us off the 20 worst offenders list — but we can still do better. Reducing the amount of plastic we use is the first step. For consumers, that means avoiding overpackaged goods and unnecessary plastic items, such as bottled water, single-serve K-cup coffee pods and disposable products. We must also get better at reusing and recycling. According to a report by the U.S. non-profit As You Sow, plastic is the fastest-growing form of packaging, and only about 14 per cent gets recycled.

Oceans and the life they support face numerous threats, from climate change to overfishing. Reducing the amount of plastic we dump into them is a challenge we can meet. Let's get on it.

Become a David Suzuki Foundation Ocean Keeper

February 26, 2015

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Feb 21, 2016
4:17 PM

The use of K-Cups is detrimental to the environment, I found a company in Vancouver that actually aims to solve this problem! They’re called G-PAK and they sell a 100% biodegradable version of the K-Cup!

Mar 01, 2015
9:50 PM

I am with you all the way!!!! Lets do this,

Mar 01, 2015
8:22 AM

It is high time we all stop and think about the amounts of plastic waste we discard every day. Reuse what we can, Recycle what we can’t Reuse and Up Cycle even more… There is no way on Earth that humans should ever be permitted to leave this planet! Unless we can make better use of the resources left to us, without further destroying ecosystems and the environment as a whole, we should all just as well become extinct rather than attempt inter planetary emigration. Just imagine what another advanced life form would make of us! We are not even the superior intelligence here on Earth, merely the most adept at killing…

Feb 27, 2015
11:29 AM

One last one to post if you will allow it.

This link makes some interesting points as to the U.S. and the Billion dollar profits made through China and the exporting of plastics trash to China. Interesting how the U.S. and other countries with seemingly cleaner hands, find ways to dump plastics in territories that they may not be held responsible to clean. Canada is no Angel in any of this. I am trying to rid myself of plastics purchases and promote glass instead. This transition takes time, but I feel better about taking the steps. Every time I look at the photo’s of plastic in the Ocean, I feel sick to my stomach.

Feb 27, 2015
10:05 AM

Although, the USA may be number 20 on the top offending countries, and Canada may be doing better with our marvelous recycling systems, Canada should do better, your very correct. According to…..
Quote: “While the U.S. trade surplus was US $13.1 Billion, Mexico and Canada remain the U.S. plastics largest export markets. The industry exproted US $13.6 Billion to Mexico and US $12.5 Billion to Canada. China is the industry’s third largest export market, SPI said.” Canadians can do more as pointed out in this article written by Suzuki. We have the power to make change by NOT buying plastics. Maybe the U.S.A. won’t be number 20 of the worst offenders, with Canadians not buying and encouraging so much of the plastics production. Come on Canada! Let’s talk and make change.

Feb 27, 2015
8:08 AM

Thank you for writing this informative article concerning plastics in our Oceans. Your making a difference.

Feb 27, 2015
7:07 AM

If much of it is recyclable and just floating around out there, it sounds like a gold mine for for recyclers.

Feb 27, 2015
5:21 AM


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