How the plastic waste in the sea destroys an entire ecosystem

It is nothing new for most people: over ten million tons of plastic waste land in the sea every year. But how does this incredible amount of plastic actually get there and what exactly is so problematic about it? How can we avoid or even remove plastic waste in the sea? All these questions are answered in this blog post.

Almost 300 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide every year. A large part of it ends up in the sea. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, up to 18,000 pieces of plastic drift on every square kilometre of sea surface! However, it is assumed that about 70% of the plastic sinks to the bottom of the sea and is therefore not visible at all. So we can no longer determine how much plastic is really in the sea.

(© photo: the ocean cleanup)

How does the plastic get into the sea?

The ways by which the sculpture finds its way into the sea are many and varied:

  • Incorrect disposal: Every year millions of tons of plastic are thrown away after a single use. Plastic bottles, plastic bags and all kinds of packaging material can be found on the beaches of our seas. And most of the plastic in the sea actually comes from the land: it is carelessly thrown away or left on the beach and then carried into the sea by wind and rivers. This happens especially in areas developed for tourism, where the garbage is simply left on the beach or disposed of directly in the sea, or when people want to save the costs of disposal and dump their garbage on so-called "wild dumps", i.e. illegal dumps in the middle of the forest or in a remote field. However, a major polluter in this area is also the population in developing and emerging countries, who dispose of their waste in illegal landfills, in rivers or in the sea - simply because there is no education there about the dangers of plastic for the environment and no one knows what damage they are causing.
  • Sewage: Whether peeling, toothpaste or shower gel, they all often contain tiny plastic particles, so-called microplastics, which are supposed to enhance the cleaning effect. The wastewater then carries these small particles unfiltered into the sea. The same is true for the smallest parts of synthetic fibre clothing, which are rubbed off during washing in the washing machine and then also end up in the wastewater and finally find their way into the sea.
  • Shipping traffic: Despite the worldwide ban on disposing of plastic in the sea, it also happens in our latitudes that ships simply dispose of their waste in the sea. In addition, of course, cargo or containers are often unintentionally left in the sea because the ship loses them.
  • Fishing: Fishing nets or other equipment are sometimes deliberately disposed of in the sea or are actually lost in the sea by mistake. In such so-called "ghost nets", a few fish can quickly get caught and die miserably.
  • Garbage exports: Germany, which boasts supposedly good recycling rates, exports up to one million tonnes of plastic waste annually, including to Malaysia, India and Indonesia. And the absurd thing is: waste that has been exported is considered recycled in Germany, even though a proper recycling process cannot be guaranteed in the target countries. Often the waste is incinerated or dumped there, which in turn has a negative impact on the local environment: emissions from incineration and plastic parts that end up in the ground, in water and ultimately in the sea.

Effects of plastic waste in the sea

Plastic is not biodegradable in principle, rather it represents a foreign body in the ecosystem. Thus it hardly decomposes at all in the sea. Only very slowly does it crumble into small pieces, which pose a great danger to marine life and ultimately to humans. And: the smaller the plastic parts are, the more difficult they are to filter out of the sea. The microplastics already mentioned above, which get into the sea through the waste water, should be specially emphasized here.

Through wind and currents, the plastic spreads across the oceans and so-called garbage carpets and swirls are formed. The most famous one is probably the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch", which is now as big as Central Europe!

Now hold on: Every year up to 135,000 marine mammals and a million seabirds die from our garbage. Some of these animals think the plastic is food, it clogs their digestive tract and they die with a full stomach or from internal injuries caused by sharp-edged plastic parts. Other animals like seals get caught in old fishing nets or other plastic parts.

But there are other dangers: when the plastic is decomposed, various toxins such as bisphenol A or phthalates are released, which accumulate in the food chain and affect the hormone balance and the genetic make-up of the animals. And this is only because we humans do not manage to dispose of the garbage we produce in a decent way or simply do not use as much plastic at all!

Remove plastic in the sea

Getting the huge amounts of plastic back out of the sea seems impossible. Nevertheless, the Dutchman Boyan Slat started the project "The Ocean Cleanup" some years ago. He developed a solar powered system that is supposed to collect 1000kg of garbage from the sea per week. The Ocean Cleanup is one of the first major attempts to remove the huge mountains of waste from the sea, to process it and, if necessary, to reuse it. Unfortunately, two months after its launch in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in October 2018, the system had to be brought ashore and repaired due to malfunctions. But there is still reason for hope: if all goes well, Ocean Cleanup's System 001 is scheduled to be sent back into the water this summer. Besides, it is not the only project of its kind anymore: there are several projects that have taken The Ocean Cleanup as a model and are working on further possibilities to fish the plastic out of the sea - for example a team from Aachen with their project "Pacific Garbage Screening”.

As you may now understand a little better, plastic waste in the sea endangers our biodiversity and the functioning of the whole marine ecosystem. There is an urgent need to counteract the current trend. Everyone can start with this at home, tips on this will be given soon in a new blog post.

(© photo: the ocean cleanup)

In order to avoid the production of so much plastic in the first place, we at the nu company use plastic-free packaging for our products. What we use instead, you can here read up.