Ocean Pollution & Plastics


“Marine debris is any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or Great Lakes” 

–NOAA Marine Debris Program 

Marine debris has become one of the most widespread pollution problems in the world’s oceans and waterways, impacting wildlife, human health and safety, habitats, and economies.  Much of the abundance of marine debris is comprised of plastics. It is estimated that one-third of plastic material becomes single-use disposable packaging.


Plastic never goes away. Over time, it breaks down into micro-plastics that now pollute all of our waterways, collect in the sand on our beaches, and are in the fish that we eat. Plastic is a petroleum based product and production keeps increasing.  We must break free from plastics before we destroy our oceans. Learn how a broader set of public policy and government solutions can help us #breakfreefromplastic! Click here.

There are countless examples of plastic’s negative impact on our planet, but here are the top 10 facts provided by the organization Oceana.  They present a compelling argument for reducing or eliminating our use of this harmful product.

  1. An estimated 8 million metric tons (17.6 billion pounds) of plastic enters the ocean every year (Jambeck et al. 2015). This is roughly equivalent to dumping a garbage truck-full of plastic into the ocean every minute.
  2. Plastic waste is everywhere. It has been found floating on the sea surface, washing up on the world’s most remote coastlines (Lavers et al. 2017), melting out of Arctic sea ice (Peeken et al. 2018) and sitting at the deepest point of the ocean floor (Chiba et al. 2018).
  3. Tens of thousands of individual marine organisms have been observed suffering from entanglement or ingestion of plastic (Gall et al. 2015).
  4. Experts estimate that 90% of seabird species have ingested plastic, the result of which can be death (Wilcox et al. 2015). Approximately 50% of the world’s sea turtles have ingested plastic debris (Schuyler et al. 2013).
  5. Plastics are flawed by design: They use a material made to last forever but designed to be thrown away.
  6. Plastics never go away. Instead, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces, which act as magnets for harmful pollutants (NOAA 2018). When eaten by fish, some of those contaminated microplastics work their way up the food chain and into our food supply (Hermabessiere et al. 2017; Rochman et al. 2013; Rochman et al. 2015). Everything from salt to honey to beer has been found to contain microplastics (Liebezeit & Liebezeit 2014; Liebezeit & Liebezeit 2013; Karami et al. 2017).
  7. Plastic is impacting human health through every single stage of its life cycle, from extraction and production to consumer use. It is making its way into our food, water and air (CIEL et al. 2019). Scientists continue to study what our plastic diet may be doing to our bodies.
  8. Unfortunately, one of the most popular solutions to plastic pollution falls short. Of the plastic waste generated, only about 9% has been recycled. 12% was incinerated and 79% accumulated in landfills, on the ground or in the ocean (Geyer et al. 2017).
  9. As of 2015, approximately 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic had been produced, of which 6.3 billion metric tons became plastic waste (Geyer et al. 2017). Over the next 10 years, plastic production is expected to increase by 40% (The Guardian 2017).
  10. Wealthier nations like the U.S. are sending plastic waste to developing countries with less robust waste management systems. China has imported a cumulative 45% of plastic waste since 1992. However, starting January 1, 2018, China permanently banned the import of nonindustrial plastic waste. This has resulted in plastic waste backing up or being sent straight to landfills. Some recyclables are still being exported to other countries with less-established waste infrastructures (Brooks et al. 2018).

If you need more inspiration, watch Open Your Eyes, narrated by Jeff Bridges. 



Impacts to Coastal Economies: 

A beach filled with marine debris on the shore and in the water is not only an eye sore but it also deters people from going there. Marine debris degrades the beauty the coastal environment and, in many cases, may cause significant economic loss if an area is a popular destination for tourists. In Virginia, a portion of taxpayers dollars is used for litter removal. Lynnhaven River NOW hosts a waterway cleanup once a month. Cleanup locations are spread throughout the city. If you and your family or friends would like to volunteer at a cleanup visit our waterway cleanup page.

Impacts to humans: 

Hazardous debris like broken glass, syringes, medical and personal hygiene debris containing pathogens presents a threat to bare-foot beach goers. Fishing line, nets, plastic bags, and rope pieces can wrap around boat propellers and clog seawater intakes compromises boaters’ safety. Plastic debris serves to concentrate and transport chemical pollutants into the marine food web, and likely to human diets. Chemicals of concern include those used in the manufacture of plastics, as well as pollutants present in the ocean water absorbed and concentrated in plastic and thus made available for animal consumption. (Rochman et al)

Impacts to Wildlife:

Land and marine animals both feel the negative effects of ocean pollution. Marine mammals including turtles, birds, crustaceans, and fish can easily get entangled in marine debris (ex. fishing lines and nets, plastic bags and balloons especially) and can ingest it. Oftentimes marine animals will mistaken these items for food or accidentally ingest it during normal feeding hours. The result is digestive track disruption and damage to the gut causing malnutrition or death.

Learn more about the Virginia Balloon Study supported by the VA Aquarium and Marine Science Center and Clean Virginia Waterways.

Impacts to Ecosystems: 

Sensitive ecosystems such as deep sea coral reefs are threatened by ocean pollution’s ability to smother and crush their environment. Hazardous chemical contaminants can absorb or attach to tiny pieces of plastic found in the water column. These microplastics can then be consumed by animals that live in the lowest tropic feeding levels in marine environments.

We can all work together to reduce the amount of trash from entering our waterways–assist with data collection, attend a cleanup and refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, repurpose and recycle. and other mitigation strategies. There are international, national, state-wide, and local opportunities that LRNow is a participant of and you can be to! Some of these efforts include the International Coastal Cleanup, National Marine Debris Monitoring Program, Clean Virginia Waterways, Clean the Bay Day and Keep it Beachy Clean.




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