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Throughout the last decade, information about plastic waste in the oceans has been making big waves. Public awareness on the matter has gone from very little in the mid-2000's to becoming one of the most prescient environmental concerns. Perhaps the biggest catalyst for the change in attitude in the UK was Planet Earth 2, which aired on the BBC in 2018. Sir David Attenborough has since said that we are “shifting our behaviour” when it comes to plastic.

But even now, do we really know enough about plastic waste in our oceans? How much plastic is there? How does it get there in the first place? What and who are the biggest sources of plastic waste?

It is estimated that there are 5.25 trillion macro and micro-pieces of plastic currently in our oceans—that’s 46,000 pieces every square mile. 90% of the plastic in our oceans is land-based, and ends up in our oceans from stormwater runoff, sewer overflows and littering. The other 10% comes from fishing gear and other marine activities.

Although plastic pollution is a huge problem worldwide, wealthier countries are better equipped to deal with it, meaning that up to 80% of ocean plastic actually comes from just 1% of rivers, most of which are in Asia.

Microplastics—which have recently been found in human blood and lungs—are said to represent 11% of all plastic waste in the ocean, and are seen as particularly dangerous because they are virtually impossible to clean-up and are easily absorbed into the food chain. The sources of microplastic waste are widely unknown to the public; they are often just highly disintegrated plastic waste. For example, the majority of micro-plastic ocean waste in Europe is from road tyre wear.

A lot of media hype in recent years has focused on oceanic garbage patches—great gyres of floating waste accumulated by ocean currents. The Ocean Cleanup—the most successful non-profit crowdfunding initiative to date—has sprung out of the growing public concern. Its long-term goal is to rid the oceans of 90 percent of plastic waste accumulated there by 2040. Considering that it estimates to currently remove 20,000 tonnes annually, it will need to severely up the ante to tackle the 14 million tonnes being dumped in the oceans annually.

Many experts are highly critical of such projects as the Ocean Cleanup, because it is focusing on cleanup rather than prevention. Fundamentally it is a change in our production and consumption habits that is going to save us.

So in terms of prevention, what is actually being done? The good news is that, in contrast to issues such as climate change and deforestation, almost all governments are investing in tackling the problem. Since 2002, 94 countries have introduced plastic bag bans, and 32 countries have imposed a charge on bags. This has already proved highly effective—in the UK we have seen plastic bag usage decline by 95% in major supermarkets since 2015. The UK and EU governments are currently deep in the process of introducing robust laws against all single use plastics, and the EU is soon to propose a sweeping ban on 90 percent of manufactured microplastics.

China, the world’s largest plastic producer, and whose Yangtze River is the biggest contributor to ocean plastic waste in the world, has started to take significant actions, perhaps more than any other country. After achieving 30% of all waste recycled in 2020, it has set out a new plan for 2025, with stringent measures set against single-use plastics. Many other countries are gradually introducing their own measures too.

What's more, this year the United Nations Environment Assembly approved a resolution to create the world’s first-ever global plastic pollution treaty, describing it as the most significant green deal since the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The giant plastic producers are also taking steps, for example INEOS is pledging to use up to 50% recycled plastic in all of its products in Europe by 2025, and hopes to constantly increase this percentage going forwards.

There is promise in the changing government laws and business regulations, and if we all continue to take individual action to reduce our plastic footprint we’re heading in the right direction. Together, with sustainable adjustments in our habits, we can beat back the rising tide of plastic.

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