Environmental concerns are among the most significant long-term threats faced by contemporary humanity. Pollution is one of the greatest negative environmental impacts of human activities and, as such, constitutes an issue of current importance. For a planet that is mostly covered by water, paying careful attention to the pollution of oceans instead of solely concentrating on land becomes mandatory. Pollutants that threaten the Earth’s oceans are numerous and varied, but few are as dangerous in the grand scheme of things as the seemingly mundane plastics. Considerable amounts of plastic contaminants reach the oceans daily and pose all manner of threats to marine biodiversity and the safety of oceanic wildlife. Fortunately, there are several prospective ways of mitigating this contamination and potentially ridding the oceans of plastic. In general, terms, solving this problem would require environmentally conscious economic policies and international, and more specific solutions may range from finding alternative materials to devising new ways of cleaning plastic from the oceans.
Historically speaking, oceanic plastics pollution is a rather recent issue that only rose to the forefront of attention in recent decades. It is understandable, as plastics themselves are a relatively late addition to the list of materials used by humanity. However, while plastics have been in general use for less than a century, they have already succeeded in becoming a global environmental threat. Avio et al. note that plastic production and consumption increased from 0.5 million tons per year in 1960 to almost 300 million tons in 2013, and this growth shows no signs of abating (2). As a result, what has recently been an emerging contaminant is now a full-fledged threat to the planet’s environment, including its oceans.
The sources of plastic pollution are numerous and diverse, but, put together, they provide for an alarming amount of waste washed into the oceans. As one might expect, plastics mainly come to the oceans from the land (Haward). All sorts of plastic waste, from packaging and street litter to production waste, may, if mismanaged or carelessly handled, may reach the oceans, whether through rivers or other routes. Apart from that, human activities in the coastal zones also contribute to the contamination because fishing gear, ropes, and other implements may end up in the water as well (Haward). Finally, ships – ranging from recreational to commercial vessels – also play their role in increasing the amount of plastic in the ocean (Haward). The magnitude of the resulting contamination causes negative environmental impacts in more than one way.
One of the most prominent ways in which plastic pollution proves dangerous and harmful to the environment is its impact on the diet of oceanic wildlife. When left to drift at sea under the sun rays, many plastics tend to degrade into micro-sized and nano-sized particles (Haward). Marine life, especially plankton, can mistake these particles for food, resulting in the corresponding digestion and nutrition issues. Avio et al. mention that a longitudinal study carried out from 1986 to 2008 found plastic particles in 60% of plankton samples (4). The problem does not end there: other marine species that consume plankton end up consuming the plastics they carry as well. Consequently, the contamination of oceans with synthetic polymers has a profound adverse impact on the diet and, by extension, the health of oceanic wildlife.
Apart from the dietary impact, which would be bad enough n its own, plastics may also engender the biological diversity of the maritime environments. Research demonstrates that the amount of synthetic debris in the oceans “has massively increased the opportunity for the dispersal of marine organisms through rafting material” (Avio et al. 6). All kinds of organisms, from reptiles to mollusks and words, have been observed floating on the plastic waste, sometimes straying quite far from their natural habitats (Avio et al. 6). These new means of travel allow invasive species to go to places they were not able to reach before and upset the ecological balance there. Thus, synthetic polymers represent a threat not only to the diet of marine life forms but also to the diversity of oceanic wildlife.
In order to counter the danger represented by plastic pollution of the oceans, one has to properly understand the nature of the problem and its underpinnings. Identifying the main sources of contamination, as in several paragraphs above, is a necessary prerequisite, but if one aspires to solve the issue, one should also study the factors that influence it. Income and GDP per capita seem to be among the most obvious ones: the more money people have, the more they consume, and, thus, a higher standard of living transfers to more waste. However, research suggests that this relationship is not as straightforward as it may seem at first glance. A statistical study by Barnes shows that “as income per capita increases for less developed economies, environmental pollution and degradation will also increase, but only up to a certain level” (815). Countries with a higher standard of living tend to produce less waste than their less-developed counterparts. It means that economic development and the growth of income per capita might be beneficial to curbing oceanic plastics contamination.
Appealing as it might seem, this solution alone will not suffice to solve the problem. Barnes’ statistics prove that, as income grows, waste production only increases to a certain threshold – yet the problem is that this threshold tends to be quite high. For instance, the countries of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman generated 1634.9 and 204.6 kilotons of plastic waste, respectively, in 2016 alone (Ghayebzadeh et al. 1). Up to 500 and 107 kilotons of these ended up in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman (Ghayebzadeh et al. 1). Many of the states surrounding these borders of water, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman, are developed states with high income per capita. Still, it did not prevent them from contaminating the ocean massively. These facts suggest that economic policies aimed at improving the standard of living may be necessary but are not enough to counter the oceans’ pollution with synthetic polymers.
Another important prerequisite for solving the problem is creating wide-reaching international agreements to mitigate and prevent pollution. As of now, the international maritime law forbids ships-sourced disposal of plastics but does not implement a similar framework to monitor and prevent synthetic polymers from reaching the oceans from land (Haward). As mentioned above, land-based sources are, by far, the main supplier of plastic waste to the oceans and require a correspondingly thorough approach. A far-reaching international agreement on plastics in maritime jurisdictions would be a necessary premise for the states of the world to take more decisive action to counter the current environmental crisis.
Speaking of the specific solutions to the issue at hand, the most obvious one is developing newer and more efficient ways of gathering plastics from the oceans’ surface and perfecting the existing ones. Considering the amount of plastic that is already present in maritime environments, it should be an integral part of any serious effort that aims to rid the oceans of synthetic polymers that contaminate them. There are already technological solutions that allow clearing the ocean surface from plastic pollutants, such as the “floating screen technology used by the Dutch charity Ocean Cleanup” (Barnes 819). Other possible solutions, such as a density floating approach, also deserve due consideration (Barnes 819). However, one should not forget that cleaning waste from the oceans is only part of the job – the equally important task is to prevent it from entering the oceans from the land.
One of the more obvious solutions to reduce the amount of plastic that reaches the oceans is improving recycling technologies. As with the previous solution, there are multiple possible avenues of approach in this case. On the one hand, research into the microbes for plastic biodegradation may yield great results. Should the solutions based on this approach succeed, plastic may become “a carbon and energy source” for living organisms (Barnes 819). Unlike the plankton case above, its consumption by the microbes would benefit the environment. Apart from that, behavioral research may also deliver promising results, since it can increase people’s willingness to recycle waste instead of throwing it away (Barnes 819). Naturally, innovations to increase the range of synthetic polymers that can be recycled or the efficiency of the process would also be valuable. Hence, recycling technologies should be a crucial component of a prospective solution to maritime plastic pollution.
Finally, there is one more essential task related to solving the issue – the development and use of alternative materials. As long as there is non-degradable waste, such as plastics, some of it will find its way into the oceans and cause all the negative environmental impacts described above. However, decreasing the use of non-degradable plastic will mitigate and maybe even ultimately solve the contamination problem. These materials may vary from the innovative biodegradable synthetic polymers to the well-known cellulose – after all, a paper bag may serve just as well as a plastic one (Barnes 819). Therefore, reducing the consumption of any non-degradable material, plastics included, is a long-term goal for sustainable development that will surely contribute to cleaning the oceans.
As one can see, plastic pollution o the oceans is a serious and multi-faceted problem, but there are potential solutions for it. A spiking increase in the production and use of synthetic polymers from the 1960s onward has made plastics, which arrived at the oceans from multiple sources, some of the most notable contaminants. This contamination threatens the nutrition of maritime wildlife as well as the oceans’ biodiversity. Evidence suggests that increasing the standard of living eventually mitigates waste generation, but this approach alone is not sufficient. Global management of plastic waste should include far-reaching international agreements aiming at curbing pollution. In addition to these, research into the ways of gathering and recycling waste, as well as developing and adopting biodegradable materials, should be an integral part of the effort to rid the oceans of plastic.
Avio, Carlo Giacomo, Stefania Gorbi, and Francesco Regoli. “Plastics and Microplastics in the Oceans: From Emerging Pollutants to Emerged Threat.” Marine Environmental Research, vol. 128, 2017, pp. 2-11.
Barnes, Stuart J. “Understanding Plastics Pollution: The Role of Economic Development and Technological Research.” Environmental Pollution, vol. 249, 2019, pp. 812-821.
Ghayebzadeh, Mehdi, Hassan Taghipour, and Hassan Aslani. “Estimation of Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman: An Environmental Disaster, Scientific and Social Concerns.” Science of the Total Environment, vol. 733, 2020, Web.
Haward, Marcus. “Plastic Pollution of the World’s Seas and Oceans as a Contemporary Challenge in Ocean Governance.” Nature Communications, vol. 9, 2018, Web.