How Much Plastic is in the Ocean, and Why is that a Problem?

ocean plastic

By now, we know that plastic is harmful to the environment. Some of the same things that make it such a useful material—the fact that it’s lightweight, easy to produce, and fairly durable—also contributes to its toxicity. Lightweight plastics like plastic bags and plastic wrap can catch the wind, so even if they end up in a landfill, they can easily float away. Besides this, the sheer amount of plastic waste produced is more than we can possibly keep up with. This causes literally tons of plastic litter, much of which ends up in our waterways.

Ocean plastics cause a particular hazard to the environment. Improperly managed plastic waste on land easily makes its way into our oceans, and ocean life is dying because of it. It’s more than just heartbreaking; the loss of marine wildlife can change ecosystems and devastate communities that depend upon seafood to survive.

But, exactly how much of a problem is ocean plastic? Let’s discuss how much plastic there is in the ocean and why it’s a problem.

plastic pollution problem

Perhaps the scariest part of this question is that we don’t know how much plastic waste is in the ocean. All we know is that it’s far too much to calculate.

In 2015, it was estimated that at least 150 million metric tons of plastic were in the ocean. It’s believed that this number could grow to 600 million metric tons by 2040 if plastic production and waste management continues on its current trajectory.

What we do know is that there is a massive, floating vortex of marine trash, mostly made up of plastic, that’s floating in the Pacific Ocean. Called the Great Garbage Patch, it’s made up of two patches, one in the east and one in the west, that’s connected by a “highway” of trash that follows the currents. While it’s easy to picture this patch as a big, floating trash pile, it’s actually more of a cloudy soup due to the breakdown of the trash over time. This makes it extremely difficult to clean since the leftover plastic particles are so small.

On top of this, it’s estimated that up to 70% of this debris is actually on the bottom of the ocean, so we can’t see most of it. So, while the plastic pollution problem is extreme enough that there is a massive garbage patch viewable from above, we can still only see a small portion of it.

Why should we care about ocean plastic?

earth care

The massive trash piles in the Pacific Ocean are big enough that they can block the sun, killing marine life like algae and plankton, which depend upon the sun to survive. These types of marine life are also imperative to the food cycle, since many whales and other animals feed upon them. This disturbs the entire ecosystem, causing depleted life of all sorts and potentially causing seafood shortages. At best, this makes seafood more expensive for those who enjoy the cuisine, and at worst, it causes food shortages for communities who depend upon fish and other seafood for survival.

Beyond the Pacific Garbage Patch, fishing nets, plastic bags, and other plastic debris kill wildlife. Seals, whales, and other mammals become entangled in the nets, and they drown. Other marine wildlife mistake plastic as food (plastic bags can easily look like jellyfish, for example), and they ingest the plastic. The plastic fills their stomachs, but it won’t be broken down, and the animals eventually starve.

We’ve already reached a point where it’s nearly impossible to clean the amount of marine trash in the oceans, and certainly not in our lifetime. In fact, it’s estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than 1% of the North Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, the massive cost of cleanup is more than any one country or entity can handle, and since this trash heap appears in the middle of the ocean, it’s difficult to determine who should be financially responsible.

The only way to address this issue is by shifting to a circular economy. According to a PEW study, if we made a global, transformational change in this direction, it could reduce the annual flow of plastics into the ocean by 80%. This transformational change cannot wait. Every year, the amount of plastics that finds its way into the ocean increases, and this is not set to change unless we, as a global community, make significant adjustments.

How TONTOTON addresses this issue

Vietnam litter

Because of increased plastic production, as it stands, ocean plastic will only continue to grow. This is a problem that starts on land; 80% of all marine plastic has land roots. Here in Vietnam, we have a particular responsibility to this global issue. Vietnam is one of the top four contributors to plastic pollution, and the Mekong River is one of the top 10 sources of ocean plastic.

Experts agree that we need to stop plastic waste before it reaches the ocean. Once it reaches the ocean, it’s nearly impossible to clean. While the true solution to ocean plastic would be to eliminate plastic waste entirely, this is currently not a viable solution; plastic is too versatile, and we’ve yet to discover an equally useful alternative. Therefore, we must do what we can to responsibly manage the plastic waste that we produce.

While there are some systems in place in order to remove recyclable plastic from the environment before it becomes ocean plastic (waste pickers collect recyclable plastics and sell them to craft villages to be recycled) there are no systems in place to address low value, non-recyclable plastic. These types of plastics account for a high percentage of ocean plastic waste because they are so mismanaged. They cannot be recycled, which makes them useless to waste pickers who make a living by selling plastic to recycling centers. As a result, they end up in landfills or as ocean-bound plastic (OBP).

TONTOTON offers an additional solution by addressing non-recyclable OBP. Our projects occur in areas where orphan plastic is at a high risk of becoming ocean plastic, and we’ve created a market for nonrecyclable plastic, ensuring that this massive source of pollution isn’t ignored. 

Through co-processing, we are able to eliminate non-recyclable OBP in a way that results in zero waste. This creates a circular solution, which experts agree is the best way to reduce ocean plastic overall.

Beyond this, we encourage our corporate partners to further reduce their production and use of low value, non-recyclable plastic, ensuring that the true solution to reducing ocean plastic—minimizing orphan plastic use—is achieved.

When you partner with TONTOTON, you’ll fund projects designed to focus on a commonly mismanaged ocean plastic source—low value plastic—allowing you to neutralize your plastic footprint in an additional way that can make a true difference.