The Earth is swimming in plastic. Human activity along coastlines, runoff, and waste (mostly from single-use plastics) are some of the main culprits of land-based ocean pollutants. This pollution-producing garbage and debris have the power to affect not just ocean life, but human life as well. Marine debris can injure sea life, interfere with human navigation, and add damaging microplastics (plastic pieces smaller than 5 millimeters) to the ocean—microplastics that can kill marine animals, seabirds, and fish while ending up in the seafood humans consume.
Garbage patches, or large ocean areas where marine debris is collected and congregated by the currents, are located in the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans. These “patches” are spread across the surface of the water from the top all the way to the bottom of the sea floor—made up entirely of trash. Of that waste, nearly 90% is made up of plastics. There are an estimated 150 million metric tons of plastic circulating in our oceans right now; each year, that number increases by about 8 million metric tons.
Now for some good news. Already, there are incentives to improve waste management, ban single-use plastics such as straws and bags, and, perhaps most crucial of all, find more ways to undo the damage already inflicted upon the oceans. The Ocean Conservancy has brought together more than 12 million volunteers from 153 countries since beginning its annual International Coastal Cleanup in 1986. International Coastal Cleanup efforts resulted in collecting trash from the beaches of 106 different countries. The garbage gathered was equal in weight to 812 cruise ship anchors.
Since the ocean is the world's largest ecosystem and comprises more than 70% of the earth's surface, humans can't afford to fail. Oceans generate half of the oxygen we breathe, contain more than 97% of the earth's water, can absorb harmful atmospheric carbon dioxide, and provide the world with one-sixth of the animal protein we consume.
So, which items are proving the most problematic for our oceans? More importantly, what can you do to help? To find out, Stacker looked at data from the Ocean Conservancy's Building a Clean Swell 2018 Report, which ranked the total number of items collected in oceans worldwide during the Ocean Conservancy's 2017 International Coastal Cleanup.
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- Total items collected: 580,570
Also known as expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), these containers are not considered green enough to be recycled and break down into smaller pieces often mistaken by sea animals for food. It's frighteningly easy for foam containers to wind up in waterways due to their lightweight, floaty material. Check to see if your city has any ordinances banning EPS use, and contact your city or county council to see how you can help support a new law or ordinance if it doesn't. Also, be sure to never bring foam takeout containers to the beach (and avoid using them at all wherever possible).
- Total items collected: 624,878
Something as small as a plastic lid may seem insignificant—that is until millions of people use one to top their coffee cups every day. If you'll be enjoying your drink at the cafe instead of taking it to go, tell your barista to skip the lid (you won't miss it). Better yet, bring your own reusable cup and ask the coffee shop to fill it up instead of using a plastic one.
- Total items collected: 632,874
Plastic containers are usually used only once before ending up as trash in the ocean unable to biodegrade. As the plastic ages, it breaks apart and causes similar problems as foam containers: Animals think they're bits of food, which in turn causes internal blockages, choking hazards, and contaminates the critters with poisonous chemicals. Refuse these types of containers whenever possible, and bring your own reusable containers when you can. If you do end up taking a plastic container to go, find a way to reuse it. You can also let businesses know that you prefer sustainable alternatives for take-out containers.
- Total items collected: 643,562
Single-use straws and stirrers have the potential to cause more damage to wildlife than other plastics because of their smaller size; they are easier to break into microplastics and often too small to recycle. Saying “no” to a straw is one of the easiest ways to do your part to keep the ocean free from single-use plastics. Opt instead for a reusable straw made from stainless steel or bamboo; they usually come with a carrying case and a cleaning tool.
- Total items collected: 746,211
These types of plastic bags tend to be smaller, and therefore more likely to be mistaken for food by marine life. Sandwich bags or plastic zipper bags can be easily replaced with reusable glass or stainless steel containers and lunch boxes, or by using reusable food wraps made from sustainable materials.
- Total items collected: 757,523
Plastic grocery bags are an epidemic, but some companies and governments are beginning to implement bans on them. Sea turtles often mistake these floating translucent bags for jellyfish before attempting to consume them, which can choke them. The fix is simple: purchase your own reusable grocery and produce bags and keep a couple in your car for impromptu trips to the store.
- Total items collected: 1,091,107
The tiny plastic caps used to top your favorite beverages are doing more damage than you think. These brightly colored plastic caps are small enough for marine life and seabirds to mistake for food more often than larger plastic items. Even worse, most recycling centers don't accept caps and ask that you remove them beforehand. You can do your part by ensuring your waste is disposed of properly and using reusable bottles whenever possible.
- Total items collected: 1,569,135
One of the best ways to help reduce plastic bottle pollution is by recycling properly. Check out the resin ID code on the side of your plastic bottles to find out the plastic type. A majority of plastic bottles and jugs are marked as either #1 plastic (PET) or #2 plastic (HDPE), and both are usually accepted by most recycling programs. Even plastic bottles marked “biodegradable” are not designed to break down in the oceans; they are designed to break down in compost or in landfills. If you drink a lot of water, grab a reusable bottle and download the Tap app to find out where the closest water refill station is.
- Total items collected: 1,739,743
Food wrappers made of plastic are difficult to recycle, meaning they often end up degraded into microplastics in the ocean. Choosing a product made from reusable sustainable materials instead of plastic cling wrap can help ensure that your food stays fresh with a less negative impact on the environment. Try storing leftovers in glassware, instead, or using reusable food wraps made from beeswax.
- Total items collected: 2,412,151
Not only do the butts themselves not biodegrade in the ocean, they often contain traces of harmful chemicals that can prove fatal if consumed by sea life. A San Diego State University study found that a single cigarette butt with traces of tobacco introduced into a liter of water resulted in the death of 50% of the fish in the water. Besides the obvious—quitting smoking—you can back legislative action to ban cigarette filters (which some argue are more of a marketing tool than a measure toward heath), participate in local beach cleanups, or support companies that make filters out of organic materials.