How Does Plastic Get Into The Ocean?

About 20 percent of the plastic in the oceans comes from ships or offshore platforms; the rest is blown, washed off the land or intentionally dumped. In the sea, big pieces of plastic look like jellyfish or squid, while small pieces look like fish eggs, so marine creatures eat the plastic debris mistaking it for food.
Marine trash, mainly plastic, is killing more than a million seabirds and 100,000 mammals and sea turtles each year by ingestion and entanglement.
A 2001 paper by Japanese researchers reported that plastic debris acts like a sponge for toxic chemicals, soaking up a million fold greater concentration of such deadly compounds as PCBs and DDE (a breakdown product of the notorious insecticide DDT), than the surrounding seawater. These turn into toxic gut bombs for marine animals which frequently mistake these bits for food. In the sea, big pieces of plastic look like jellyfish or squid, while small pieces look like fish eggs, so marine creatures eat the plastic debris mistaking it for food.
Most plastics don't biodegrade. Unless removed, they'll remain in the sea for hundreds of years, breaking up into ever-smaller particles. Recently scientists discovered that microscopic pieces of plastic can be found everywhere in the oceans, even inside plankton, the keystone of the marine food chain.

Plastic Ocean

Plastic is a toxic material that is severely affecting marine creatures and the marine ecosystems and ultimately humans. We only see the stuff that floats. But it can sink and/or float depending on the environmental conditions of the ocean. Because the specific gravity of much of it is roughly that of the ocean water, it can rise in rough seas and sink during the calms. Sunlight, which has very limited penetration in the water, breaks it down into continuously smaller particles until it reaches molecular size.
Some of the plastic debris has taken a fifty-year voyage in violent seas since it was first produced. And it doesn’t appear to be breaking down into something that is even close to the natural materials of the earth they once came from. There are estimates of how long this will take, but it clearly takes more than fifty years.
According to a study published in 1992 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), plastic pellets were one of the most abundant types of debris found in US harbors of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico. These nurdles are the feed stock of the plastics industry and come in a variety of shapes — spherical, ovoid, and cylindrical — with sizes ranging from one to five millimeters diameter. In 1992, nearly sixty billion pounds of these plastic pellets were made annually in the United States and are shipped via train, truck, and ship. The most commonly produced resins include polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene.[5] Considering the magnitude of the problem, the most logical sources would be somewhere along the supply chain of the plastics industry.

How does it get into the ocean?

The AMRF study is aimed at finding the source of the plastic, but it is more of a question of how it is permeating the ocean waters of the world. Since most of the plastic consists of pellets that have not even been made into a product, logic dictates that the source is the plastics manufacturers, which are scattered throughout the four-county region where the study is taking place. There are literally hundreds of manufacturers and each has direct access to the ocean via storm drains and rivers. The EPA has known of this global problem for more than a decade. Yet the problem is only getting worse, is still unregulated and nothing is done beyond studies of the problem.

What harm does it do?

For a coastal municipality such as Long Beach, California that has been hard hit by the problem, it is a major financial headache. It clogs up any kind of filter, no matter what the size of its opening. Boat engines and propellers are hindered by it as well. Tourists scorn it and shun areas where plastic is most abundant. The real damage is what most untrained eyes miss: choking and starving birds, turtles, and other animals. The size of the debris that gets lodged in their throats, stomachs, and or intestines determines their fate. Similar to plastic getting into our food from packaging, it migrates into the water and animals that eat it, along with chemicals that are attracted to the nurdles like hitchhikers. These hitchhikers are the metabolites — breakdown products — of DDT and other dioxin-like chemicals that accumulate up to one million times greater than the ambient seas concentrations.[6]  The confluence of the many thousands of man-made synthetic chemicals along with other environmental factors such as rising ocean temperatures is drastically reducing the fertility and populations of many ocean species, as well as overall biodiversity.


We cannot wait for more studies. If there is any time left to turn this around, there isn’t much. There is no good plastic and that we must immediately end or at least put severe limitations on its use.

1. Moore et al. A comparison of plastic and plankton in the North Pacific central gyre. Marine Pollution Bulletin, v.42, n.12, Dec01

2.State Water Resources Control Board (California) press release. Research to Prevent Coastal Water Pollution Gets Nearly $500,000 State Water Board Grant. SWRCB 02-017 29oct04.

3, 4.Charles Moore. Trashed: Across the Pacific Ocean, Plastics, Plastics, Everywhere. Natural History v.112, n.9, Nov03.

5. USEPA. Plastic Pellets in the Aquatic Environment: Sources and Recommendations. United States Environmental Protection Agency Office of Water (WH-556F) EPA 842/B-92/010 Dec92.

6. Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium for Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment - Environ. Sci. Technol. 2001, 35, 318-324

Manuel Martinez

Project GreenBag, 2200 Market St, San Francisco, CA, 94114, United States