How Non-Coastal Litter Still Ends Up in the Ocean
Last month, we invited our local community to do a coastal trash pickup with us. We were met with such proactive individuals and couldn’t help but feel a special kind of high afterward.
When we got to sorting the trash at the end of the event, we were met with a stark realization that everything we picked up was highly likely to have ended up in the ocean someday…
This led us to ask the following questions:
How does litter get into the ocean? What are the inevitable consequences of exporting waste to developing countries? Here's everything you need to know.
Textile fibers, eyeglass lenses, costume wigs, insulation — what do these seemingly unrelated items have in common? They are all non-coastal litter that still ends up in the ocean. In fact, approximately 10 million tonnes of litter end up in the world’s seas and oceans every year. Don't kill the messenger but, at this very moment, there are hundreds of swirling garbage zones in the oceans where all kinds of trash end up each and every day. But unlike natural and biodegradable materials, plastic waste takes up to 450 years to decompose. Even worse, sunlight, salt, and water waves split plastics (even those that come from land-based activities) into ever-smaller pieces.
With plastics becoming smaller and smaller during their journey, chemicals are also released into the oceans. The most common offender? Bisphenol A (BPA)! BPA can cause reproductive disorders in shellfish and crustaceans, which often leads to fish producing less healthy offspring. Research conducted by Algalita, found that marine water samples contained six times more plastic than plankton. Shockingly, the same research pointed out that more than 40% of existing species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, all species of marine turtles, and 36% of sea birds species have ingested marine litter.
How Does Litter Get into the Ocean?
This debris gets into the water in many ways. Garbage in the ocean can very well come from our neighborhood's trash cans, the streets, and landfills. Sometimes, this non-costal litter is blown into sewers and rivers, while, in other cases, it is directly dumped into the ocean.
Transportation to landfills
It’s a well-known fact that rubbish is transpired to landfills each and every day. During the transportation process, because the items can be extremely lightweight, they often get blown away by the wind. This litter ends up around drains or, even worse, enters our rivers which then transport it to the ocean.
From the street to the ocean
Take a plastic sandwich wrap as an example. The wrap is carefully thrown in the trash bin in a busy neighborhood. However, the weather is particularly chilly today. The wind blows the wrap from the bin into the nearby street and then forces it to make its way into the drain. And this is how its journey to the river and then to the ocean begins.
Products that go down the drain
Some non-costal litter is more obvious than others. Daily hygiene items like wipes and cotton buds are flushed down toilets. On top of that, we have microfibers. We previously discussed the issue in depth, but, to summarize, the main source of primary microplastics is synthetic clothing. These manufactured materials, which are by-products of petroleum and are non-biodegradable, now account for 35% of microplastics in the ocean through our washing machines.
So much so that one piece of clothing can release a staggering 700,000 fibers in a single wash. These plastic fibers are consumed by small marine species, and eventually, even end up in our food chain.
Microplastics from tires can still end up in the ocean
Microplastics are everywhere and they can very well find their way into our oceans while we are driving around the city too. Did you know that car tires shed an alarming amount of microplastics? Yes, tires are one of the largest sources of ocean microplastics, according to a study in Nature Communications. Tiny particles shed by tires and brake pads account for roughly 550,000 tons of microplastics that pollute the oceans EVERY YEAR. These itsy bitsy pieces are traveling through the sewages to the ocean as we speak! This is yet another shocking example of how can litter end up in the ocean even when it's nowhere near it.
Waste Management & Exporting Plastic Waste
Waste management issues
Leakage from waste management systems is also a huge environmental concern. Landfills, especially those close to rivers or oceans in developing countries, are well-known illegal dumping waste spots that add greatly to the plastic surge in our seas. However, exporting waste to developing countries.
The impact of exporting waste to developing countries
Exporting waste to developing countries is nothing new. Rich countries are illegally exporting plastic trash to poor countries, according to an analysis of global trade data. The US, for example, has sent more than 800 million pounds of plastic waste to Mexico, Malaysia, India, Vietnam, and other Basel parties in 2021 alone.
The Guardian reported that in the Philippines, one of the biggest plastic importers, the amount of plastic waste is so overwhelming that it has sickened residents of Manila and clogged the island nation’s coastlines. This is one of the biggest examples of how litter gets into the ocean even if it’s non-coastal.
Plastic Pollution Solutions: What You Can Do Today
Sadly, we can’t do anything about the pressing issue of exporting waste to developing countries. What we can do is take an extra step to ensure that your trash is disposed of correctly.
The most important rule is don’t litter!
On top of the tremendous water pollution, Researchers estimate that more than 40% of the world's litter is burned in the open air, which can release toxic emissions.
Remember to reduce, reuse, and recycle as much as possible
At the end of the day, the less trash you produce, the less plastic will end in our ecosystem. Make sure to recycle properly because, at present, just 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide. Earth911 is one of the largest recycling databases with over 100.000 listings to help you recycle “common & uncommon material like household items, auto fluids, electronics, metal, glass, paper, plastics, & construction waste.”
Avoid single-use plastic products
Opt for eco-friendly everyday products and reusable versions of your go-to items to avoid adding up to the already existing plastic waste. Swap your daily to-go cup of coffee with a Glass Coffee Mug, opt for a Double Wall Insulated Water Bottle to keep your brews deliciously hot without any plastic, and get a Net Market Bag instead of a single-use alternative. There are also plenty of zero-waste products for busy folks on the go such as Bamboo Cutlery Sets and Beeswax Food Wraps.
Support eco-conscious organizations
Now that you know exactly how litter gets into the ocean, maybe it’s time to have a look at the amazing work of some of the best non-profit organizations like Oceanic Society, Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5 Gyres, Algalita, Plastic Soup Foundation, and more.
So how can litter end up in the ocean? There are so many answers to this pressing environmental issue. From exporting waste to developing countries to everyday plastic items getting blown away by the wind, non-coaster litter still manages to find its way into our water bodies. The important thing is that we all try to educate ourselves and do something mindful to help the situation, no matter how small.