Marine Plastics Progress Report: The First 100 Years

“After more than 100 years of plastics cycling through oceanic and other systems, humans are now ingesting about a credit card worth of plastic every week.”

In the summer of 1989, I was part of a joint Soviet-American Sail for peace and the environment from New York City, USA to Lenigrad, USSR and back. The primary mission of the project was to promote peace and cooperation between Americans and Soviets as the Cold War was coming to an end. A secondary mission was to take samples of ocean surface water along the cruise track to get a snapshot of marine pollution at that time. Environmental scientists onboard found plastics in 33 out of 34 samples collected on the first leg from NYC to Leningrad, showing just how pervasive a problem plastic pollution in the oceans was 32 years ago. By 2021, plastic pollution throughout the world’s oceans has become a key environmental problem injuring and killing hundreds of thousands to millions of marine animals annually.

How did plastic pollution become this serious?

To really understand how plastic pollution has become such a serious problem for marine life today, we need to go back more than 100 years to 1907. Research and development of modern plastics began with the invention of Bakelite, the first plastic made with synthetic components. The word “plastic” simply means “flexible” and people were looking for durable and flexible materials to make products with. By the 1930’s, Henry Ford was developing plastics from soy fibers and petroleum resins to make Model T’s. Others were interested in developing plastic construction materials. Almost as quickly as plastics development and manufacturing began, plastic pollution inevitably followed, and much of this pollution found its way to the oceans.

Mass production of increasingly complex plastics began during World War II, for all kinds of purposes from military to business to civil engineering applications. Although some of us are familiar with the popular reference to investing in plastics from the 1967 film The Graduate, the first time investing in plastics was mentioned in film was in the immensely popular 1946 holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life, showing how important plastic manufacturing and use had already become by the end of WWII. Plastic production increased from 1.5 million tons in the early 1950’s to over 320 million tons per year today globally.

Plastics by the numbers (global)

8300 million tons: amount of plastics manufactured since the 1950’s

2600 million tons: amount still in active use

4900 million tons: amount that has been discarded

800 million tons: amount that has been incinerated

600 million tons: amount that has been recycled (affects overall total)

8 million tons: amount that went into the oceans in 2020

By the time scientists on the Soviet-American Sail monitored ocean samples for plastic pollution in 1989, plastics had already been entering the oceans for over 80 years. It is no surprise really that 33 out of 34 samples contained small pieces of plastic. Now, 32 years later, the amount of plastic in the oceans is staggering and its effect on marine life could not be more devastating. It is estimated that the amount of plastic entering the world’s oceans every minute is equivalent to a full garbage truck load.

What are plastics and why are they so bad?

Plastic is the term commonly used to describe a wide range of synthetic, semi-synthetic, and even natural materials used in everything from grocery bags and bottles to cars and clothing. Most oceanic fishing nets and gear are made of plastics. Single-use plastics like grocery bags, straws, water bottles, plastic cups, wrappers, and any other plastic we use once and discard have become a major source of plastic pollution in the oceans.

There are many different types of plastic and most types are found in the oceans today. The reason for this is because of the durability and longevity of plastics—precisely what made plastics so popular and successful all these years is what makes them so bad for the environment.

All plastics eventually shred and shard into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics as they break down from sunlight and physical erosion. No plastic type— even so-called biodegradable or compostable plastics—ever fully biodegrades in the scientific sense because the molecules that make up most types of plastics are resistant to microbial decomposition into smaller, simpler molecules. In other words, while the pieces of plastic are getting smaller, the molecules within those smaller pieces remain the same. This is one reason why plastic pollution is so durable and  troubling: it does not break down into molecules that can be reused by living things like genuine biodegradable materials.

To make matters worse, some of the molecules used to make plastics are environmental toxins that leach into the ocean over time. You can taste these toxins when you taste “plastic” in water that has been in a plastic bottle for a long time. They are chemicals used to make the bottle more plastic (or flexible) and they are toxic to humans and other living things throughout marine food webs from plankton to whales. Plastics also absorb other toxins from the water and when these plastics are ingested, they are even more toxic to marine life. Some marine mammal strandings result from toxicosis after animals ingest too much plastic.

All plastic pollution in the oceans is part of what is now called marine debris. But it doesn’t really matter what it’s called, the deadly effect is the same. Macroplastics (grocery bags, bottles, etc.) are consumed by animals like sea turtles that mistake them for jellyfish, comb jellies, and salps. Oceanic fishing nets and other marine debris entangle and trap marine animals. Microplastics and microfibers (fibers derived from the wear and tear and washing of synthetic clothing) are consumed by filter feeding animals like humpback whales. By eating plastics and synthetic fibers instead of real food, these animals become sick and die. Scientific necropsies have found plastics in the bodies of most dead marine animals, regardless of how they died. And through a process called biomagnification, humans ingest plastics and toxins when we eat seafood loaded with these pollutants. In fact, after more than 100 years of plastics cycling through oceanic and other systems, humans are now ingesting about a credit card worth of plastic every week.

Make A Difference: Adopting a Plastic-Free Lifestyle

Click here for printable PDF

Choosing to make a difference should not feel overwhelming or stressful. We know that it is impossible in our modern world to completely avoid using plastic. SOW provides lots of ways you can make a difference in your personal life, but by no means do we suggest that everyone should do everything. Start out slowly by choosing one or two things that are a good fit for you. Start small and see where it leads you. Have fun with it and see if you can inspire others. The important thing to remember is that DOING SOMETHING IS BETTER THAN DOING NOTHING!

How you can make a difference

Minimize your use of plastics

The ONLY way to effectively deal with plastic pollution in the oceans is by minimizing as much of your personal use of plastics and styrofoam as possible. By choosing not to use plastics and styrofoam, you are decreasing demand, which in turn decreases supply. The more of us who do this, the more of an impact we will have. Tell your family and friends of your commitment to minimize plastics use and try to get them to do the same.

Find reusable alternatives 

Do an inventory of all the plastics and styrofoam in your home (see figure below). Try to find reusable alternatives for as many of them as you can, especially single-use plastics like grocery bags, straws, and water bottles and styrofoam cups and containers. Reusable grocery bags are available everywhere. Bamboo, glass, metal, and other reusable straws are a great alternative to plastic straws as are reusable/refillable water bottles. Many common toiletries like toothbrushes, hairbrushes, combs, razors, etc. have non-plastic alternatives too.

When you shop, try to buy items with as little plastic packaging as possible. In the grocery store, buy in bulk with a reusable bag rather than a bunch of small items each with their own plastic container.

Recycle plastics properly

Be sure to recycle plastics properly according to your county guidelines and make sure plastic and other trash cannot be removed from your trash bins by wind or animals. Here are recycling guidelines for Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties.

Use microfiber balls and filter traps with your washing machine

Use one of these microfiber balls in your washing machine or a filter trap to prevent synthetic fibers from washing downstream to the ocean in laundry wastewater.

Clean up trash in public spaces near you

Organize and/or join clean-up days for your local beaches, parks, trails, and other public spaces to remove plastics and other trash from the environment before it can get to the ocean. Trash picker devices are available for around $20 so you don’t have to touch trash while doing your community an invaluable service.

Get involved in legislative actions to ban plastics

The next step is to support and vote on legislation in your state that bans single-use and other plastics that end up in the marine environment. Here is a link to stay informed on state-by-state plastic bag legislation.

Resources with more information on living a plastic-free lifestyle

Give the gift of a plastic-free lifestyle

Reusable grocery bags, straws, water bottles, toiletries, and microfiber balls and filters make excellent gifts to help others live the plastic-free lifestyle.

Do an inventory of these types of plastics and styrofoam (polystyrene) in your home and try to find reusable alternatives for as many of them as you can. Then recycle them properly to remove them from the ecosystem and make sure they don’t end up in the ocean. Illustration credit: Amanda Montañez

FREE Ocean wildlife guide!

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Report Ocean Animals Dead or in Distress
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Ten Personal Actions You Can Take
Whether it is through a donation of time, money or resources or picking-up plastic trash, here are ten ideas for your personal action plan to save ocean wildlife!

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