The Ocean is a flourishing ecosystem that can maintain itself.
But our actions have been negatively impacting the Ocean for decades, at a rate our Ocean cannot keep up with.
There was a time when we thought the Ocean was endless. So, we treated it that way: Taking what we wanted, when we wanted, in whatever quantity we liked.
It took us far too long to realise the many ways we threaten our Ocean. But now we know better.
Our Ocean is one of our planet’s most valuable ecosystems.
The Ocean provides over 50% of the world’s oxygen, captures 30% of human-made carbon emissions, and mitigates the climate crisis. The bottom line: We need a healthy Ocean for a healthy planet.
How does human activity threaten the Ocean?
Our Impact work explores the 5 key ways human actions negatively impact the Ocean.
Many of the underlying actions causing these Ocean Threats have existed throughout the course of human history – but have become unsustainable more recently because of rapid population growth and the consequent scale of our impact on the marine environment.
What human activity impacts the Ocean the worst?
There are no known, credible, scientific classification of the severity of these Ocean threats. What does that mean – simply? We can’t tell you which of the five threaten the Ocean the worst.
But there’s no doubt that all of these Ocean threats are inter-related and can combine to have vast negative impacts on Ocean health, marine habitats and marine life which, in turn, pose serious threats to human health.
What are the 5 human-made Ocean threats?
1. Climate change: We can’t talk about climate change without the Ocean
It’s widely accepted that human actions are the primary drivers of climate change. The biggest culprit? Burning fossil fuels (for example, coal, oil and gas) to produce energy is the main cause of climate change.
Signs of climate change are all around us – and impossible to ignore. But too few of us understand the important role our Ocean plays in mitigating the climate crisis.
How does the Ocean mitigate climate change?
Our Ocean plays a fundamental role in regulating global temperatures, storing massive amounts of carbon, and capturing heat from the atmosphere.
Although the Ocean drastically mitigates climate change, it’s also impacted by climate change. These changes (like increased Ocean heat), have negative consequences on Ocean health and thus, all of us.
2. Pollution: It’s not just plastic polluting our Ocean.
80% of plastic in our Ocean comes from the land and most of that is made up of single-use plastic items; products we use once, then throw away. And that’s the biggest problem with plastic: there is no “away.”
3. Coastal Infrastructure Development: Why do we need to protect our coastlines?
2.5 billion people live within 100km from our Ocean.
Coastal regions are densely populated areas with increasing rates of population growth (and who can blame them? Living near the Ocean has numerous benefits.)
With higher frequencies of natural weather events (like cyclones and hurricanes), erosion and land loss, and flooding, coastal regions have never been this vulnerable.
4. Resource Extraction: What resources do we extract from the Ocean?
Around 3 billion people rely on the Ocean for their primary source of protein: Seafood.
Seafood is the most notable thing we extract from the Ocean but it’s not the only thing. We also extract minerals, fossil fuels, and plants from the Ocean.
Our Ocean – as incredible as it is – is not limitless.
We must recognise the limits of Ocean resources and control the quantity and frequency at which we extract resources from the Ocean; allowing it time to replenish and regenerate. Otherwise, we will reach a point of no return.
5. Daily Ocean Use: What’s the impact of daily human actions on the Ocean?
Humans work hard and always have something on the go. The Ocean is no different.
All around the world, our Ocean is in use every day. From cargo shipping for trade, passenger traffic for travel to commercial fishing and research – the Ocean is used widely. How we make use of the Ocean is what’s important.
We need to turn to using the Ocean sustainably to protect the awe-inspiring ecosystem that supports all life on Earth.
What can I do to protect our blue planet?
Understanding the 5 main threats our Ocean faces is step one. Step two is doing something about them. Some of these Ocean Threats can feel overwhelming – but they don’t have to be.
Working together is humanity’s superpower. And it remains our best tool for solving the world’s biggest problems, and simultaneously, restoring our Ocean.
Three ways you can take environmental action – with a focus on the Ocean – right now:
Subscribe to our newsletter to receive monthly impact in your inbox; explore our Science Hub; or visit our Instagram page for bite-size environmental education.
Recognise that you don’t have to be perfect.
Ask yourself: What can I do right now to decrease my carbon footprint? What can I do to be a voice for our Ocean and empower others to do the same?
Our Impact: It’s not just plastic polluting our Ocean
Share this page
This is part of our Four Pillars work that highlights the importance of the Ocean, the human-made threats it faces, and the solutions our Ocean provides.
It’s not just plastic polluting our Ocean
With plastic encroaching so many parts of our lives since the 1950’s, it would be hard to find a person today who hasn’t heard of this life-changing material. Despite all its uses, it is undeniable that plastic is choking our Ocean.
But it’s not just plastic.
Marine pollution can be observed in many different forms (see figure below).
From chemical waste to noise, let’s explore the alarming ways in which we pollute the Ocean.
We are drowning in plastic
Plastic is the greatest concern of all the marine litter in the Ocean.
With 80% of plastic originating from land, it is clear that our mismanagement of plastic is threatening marine life. In fact, marine debris from waste streams on land and at sea into the Ocean from rivers are estimated at 1.15–2.41 million metric tons annually.
Plastic also reaches the Ocean as a result of extreme events and natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis.
One study even states that millions of tons of plastic may reach the Ocean this way, matching the magnitude of plastic from land.
The most common way plastic harms marine life is through entanglement. This is not to mention the repercussions felt through the food chain when species ingest plastics (and microplastics) unknowingly.
From whales, to birds, to turtles, plastic is mistaken for prey and consumed with traumatic consequences like infections and internal injuries.
In the UN report, Second World Ocean Assessment (WOA) 2021, it was stated that scientific and medical understanding of the health threat of plastic pollution was inadequate. But since then, scientists have published studies confirming the presence of plastic in our blood and lungs.
These findings have sparked a greater support for more research into the effects of plastic on human health.
Changes to marine communities are far from being the only effects of pollution.
The nutrients we allow into the Ocean
The increasing amount of nutrients seeping into the Ocean aid the excessive growth of algae.
This is called nutrient pollution. When the nutrients in question are nitrogen and phosphorus (from organic matter), this process is called eutrophication. It results in undesired changes to the health of coastal ecosystems.
Nutrient changes in the Ocean threaten:
– Carbon sequestration which limits climate change, – Fisheries, affecting their mortality, – Abundance of biodiversity, – Production of oxygen, and the – Mitigation of coastal flooding.
The single largest source of nitrogen and phosphorus are synthetic fertilisers.
Other agricultural inputs include animal husbandry and monocultures of legumes. Another source of nitrogen is the combustion of fossil fuels, releasing nitrogen in the form of NOx.
The most prevalent source of nutrient pollution is human sewage.
This is not a surprise considering 80% of municipal wastewater being released into the environment is untreated. Regionally, treated sewage varies from 90% in North America, 66% in Europe, 35% in Asia, and 14% in Latin America and the Caribbean to less than 1% in Africa.
This means that across the Ocean, we see an increase in phytoplankton and a decrease in oxygen levels. This disrupts fish stocks and increases the number of waterborne diseases.
But nutrients are not the only thing to worry about…
Ocean pollution – in different industries:
Industrial pollution can be observed from many sources. They are:
– Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs): They are a complex group of substances known for their ability to endure in the environment. At present, we have observed declines in some regions, thanks to regulatory standards set by the Stockholm Convention but POPs are still a global concern.
For example,cetaceans have been detected with PCB (a kind of POP) concentrations which also affects the food chain, increasing the risk of cancer and infertility in humans.
– Metals: Humans are responsible for large influxes of metals being released into the environment.
This includes metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium but also rare earth metals. Metals do not disappear over time and can be trapped in sediments.
It was found that some Artic marine mammals are at high-risk with the concentration of methylmercury in their diet. This poses a risk to the food chain, and subsequently, human health.
– Radioactivity: The discharge of radioactive substances into the Ocean from nuclear power plants continue to decline with the help of improved technologies.
– Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products: This includes all chemicals used for healthcare, cosmetics, and medical purposes. The process to remove these substances from wastewater is not efficient.
As a result, the most frequently detected compounds are antibiotics. There have been some cases like the antibiotic resistant bacteria and soil found in the Artic and Pacific but overall, there is limited data on the true impact of these products in the Ocean.
Globally, there is a decreasing trend in oil spills (over 7 tons), possibly owing to improved surveillance and increased awareness.
Shipping also increases the likelihood of marine litter, with the World Shipping Council estimating that on average, a total of 1382 containers are lost at sea each year.
Sound pollutes the Ocean (and we’re not considerate neighbours).
Human-made noise makes its way into the Ocean via vessels, renewable energy development, sonar, and seismic exploration. Marine traffic also contributes to noise pollution.
Over the past 10 years, there’s been increasing interest in developing guidelines to regulate noise in the Ocean.
We continue to learn and understand the impact of the noise we make on marine animals. Some of the observed examples are as follows:
– Increased stress levels in North Atlantic right whales – Humpback whales: changes in foraging behaviour and vocal calls during breeding season – Fish and coral larvae are less able to select appropriate habitats
Hit the lights: Do you know how light pollution impacts marine life?
This affects the behaviour of many marine mammals. For example, on one Turkish beach, light pollution from a coastal village, paper mill and a tourist resort resulted in less than 40% of logger-head turtle hatchlings being able to reach back to the shore.
They get disoriented and sometimes are at risk of predation.
The most impactful way humans project artificial light is through urbanisation of coastal areas. The light we emit can be seen from space.
In fact, up to three quarters of seafloor close to coastal cities are exposed to artificial light. But other water bodies are not immune. In freshwater ecosystems, melatonin levels which are responsible for sleep or day and night cycles, are affected in freshwater fish.
In the Ocean itself, offshore development is of concern when assessing light pollution. Artificial light at night can penetrate deep into water (over 40m) depending on the clarity of water, with humans having the most impact in the top one metre of water.
What can we do to restore the Ocean?
We need to develop a wide range of solutions to combat the different types of pollution affecting the Ocean.
To tackle plastic pollution, a Global Plastic Treaty is underway to ensure optimal waste management and promote sustainable consumption and production of plastics.
As a society however, it is still in our best interests to reduce our reliance on plastic where possible. We need to dispose plastic in the safest way possible, not allowing it in our waterways.
Nutrient pollution can be curbed with the help of top-down approaches but also public awareness.
As a community, we can take a stronger stance and equip ourselves to monitor water quality, pushing for stronger policies. Those who have lawns and gardens can also minimise their pollutant run-off through many ways.
Moreover, better sewage systems are needed to achieve standards set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In India, for example, despite efforts to operate better systems, nutrient pollution still persists. Industry stakeholders must develop and promote solutions to address pollutants in the agricultural sector. Innovative solutions are needed to reduce emissions and spills in shipping.
Lastly, there is a need to promote and fund the research required in further understanding all these issues because our Ocean is running out of time, awaiting solutions for the threats we’ve created.
Worldwide, up to five trillion plastic bags are used every year and up to 422 million tonnes of plastic are being produced annually.
As if that isn’t bad enough, half of all plastic produced is for single-use purposes, meaning it’s used once and then thrown away. In reality, there is no ‘away’ for a material designed to be indestructible.
For decades, our Ocean has been a dumping ground for plastic, sewage, industrial and chemical waste. While the Ocean is vast, it’s not bottomless and it’s certainly not a landfill site.
Single-use plastics are the biggest contributors to marine litter and pose severe threats to marine life, human health, and the planet. But how did we get here? When was plastic created? What can we do to take action and reduce the plastic polluting our blue planet?
What is the history of Ocean pollution?
We’re used to having our rubbish collected, sorted, recycled or put into landfill – but for millennia, people didn’t dispose of their waste as we would today.
Instead, waterways were used as a means of waste disposal or rubbish would be burned. As a result, pollution would end up in our Ocean or in the atmosphere.
Before the advent of plastics, and with a relatively small population, the amount of waste in the Ocean was rather small.
The invention of plastic: The dawn of pollution
In 1862, Alexander Parkes developed the first man-made plastic. The product, called ‘Parkesine’, wasn’t a commercial success, but it was an important step in the development of man-made plastic.
A staggering number of plastic innovations emerged in the period surrounding World War II, from 1933 – 1945. Plastic technology came to the forefront because copper, aluminium, steel and zinc became highly sought-after metals used only for the war effort.
In the 1960s, it became clearer how polluted our Ocean was getting.
Hold on: What is marine pollution?
Marine pollution refers to waste ending up in the Ocean and causing adverse effects. Specifically, marine pollution is a result of human impacts. A combination of chemicals and trash – most of which comes from land – is tossed, washed, or blown into the Ocean.
When was Ocean pollution – specifically, Ocean dumping – first reported?
We can assume that Ocean dumping has been in practice before anyone investigated it, partly because scientists didn’t attempt to research this issue before the 1960s. Many organisations used to dump their chemical by-products into waterways to remove their waste.
In the 1960s, scientists from the National Academy of Sciences discovered some alarming news: More than 100 million tonnes of waste had been dumped in our Ocean.
This report discounted plastic pollution, which we now know is one of the major pollutants in our Ocean, because it had just recently become a mainstream material. Instead, the Ocean pollution that these scientists reported largely relates to chemical, industrial and sewage waste.
How have plastics developed into a major Ocean polluter?
Realisation hit in the 1970’s: Plastic doesn’t ‘go away’ and it doesn’t break down; it breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics.
During this period, there was a significant rise in plastic production too, which resulted in more and more pollution. Scientists also discovered that seabirds were ingesting plastic materials and seals were getting trapped in plastic netting.
How have we tried to de-pollute the Ocean?
There have been legislative attempts to de-pollute the Ocean and remove plastic from our waterways.
Four years after the National Academy of Sciences scientists discovered how much waste had really been dumped into the Ocean, the U.S Congress passed the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries act.
By the 1980s, the Society of the Plastics Industry developed the plastic resin identification code, to make recycling and disposing of plastics easier. But our reliance on plastic had already taken hold.
In the early 2000s, the amount of plastic waste we generated rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years.
Plastic pollution has negative consequences for all life on Earth.
Even though we know plastic pollution is bad for our blue planet, we continue to produce millions of tonnes of plastic from plastic bottles and plastic forks to plastic shopper bags to giant plastic commercial containers.
A key reason plastic continues to contribute to marine pollution is lack of awareness.
From individuals to businesses to governments – if we don’t understand the problems associated with plastic pollution and the importance of having a healthy Ocean, we won’t do anything to change our ways.
As of 2022, there are 8 billion people on Earth. We need millions of those people understanding that a healthy Ocean is essential to a healthy future for all life.
Necessary legislation to reduce plastic production and pollution will only be implemented when the masses understand how necessary that legislation is.
What does the future of our Ocean look like?
We make decisions about what to purchase and what to wear daily. Choices made about how we live right now will impact the Ocean for decades to come.
So, the future health of our Ocean isn’t set. We have the ability to decide the magnitude of the plastic pollution problem. We can start making choices today to turn the tide.
We can right the wrongs of our plastic pollution history, and embrace the Ocean as the life supporting ecosystem that it is, rather than use it as a dumping ground.
We are the first generation to deeply understand Ocean issues, and the last generation who can stop them. We are all the Ocean Generation.
How can I start taking Ocean and climate action?
Get informed. Our monthly newsletter provides Ocean positive news, easy to understand Ocean science, and engaging pop-culture pieces to help you understand the human-made threats our Ocean faces and what you can do to make a difference.
We’ve become dependent on single-use plastic products.
And the reason why isn’t hard to find. Plastic is cheap, convenient and was made to last forever – but as plastic pollution has severe environmental and health consequences for our blue planet.
Understanding key facts about plastic pollution is the first step to rethinking our relationship with it, and ensuring a healthier, more sustainable future all life on Earth.
We’re breaking down 15 facts about plastic pollution – backed by science and our expertise as experts in Ocean health since 2009. Find out how plastic enters the environment, its impact on wildlife, what microplastics are, and how it effects our health below.
15 Plastic pollution facts you need to know:
1. Up to 422 million tonnes of plastic are being produced each year.
The amount of plastic produced every year weighs more than all of humanity (estimated at 316 million tonnes in 2013).
2. Up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the Ocean every year.
If waste management practices don’t improve, scientists predict this amount could increase tenfold by 2025.
Single-use plastic items are the biggest contributors to marine litter (it is estimated that 1 – 5 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year).
3. Plastics make up to around 75% of marine litter, although this can be up to 100% at some sites.
Plastic in the Ocean breaks up into smaller fragments called microplastics, which have been identified in commercial fish and thus, consumed by humans.
4. Plastic in the Ocean breaks up into smaller fragments called microplastics.
Plastic will never go away. These microplastics have been identified in commercial fish consumed by humans.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are small plastic pieces measuring less than 5 millimetres.
While some microplastics are intentionally made small (like microbeads in facial scrubs and industrial abrasives used in sandbags), others have been formed by breaking away from larger plastic products.
Due to large amounts of plastic pollution, microplastics can now be found everywhere on Earth – from Mount Everest to the Mariana Trench; the deepest part of our Ocean.
5. Half of all plastics are single-use applications, meaning they’re used just once and disposed of.
We are all guilty of using single-use plastic items. From shampoo bottles to make-up products, plastic forks, and straws – single-use plastic is part of our daily lives.
Small behaviour changes can make a massive impact in reducing the flow of plastic pollution to the Ocean.
The next time you’re at the store, reaching for a single-use plastic item, stop and consider: Is there a more sustainable product I can use? If not, think of ways you can reuse your plastic items instead of discarding of them once you’re done.
6. Plastic was invented 150 years ago.
When we see the stat, ‘Plastic takes 450 years to decompose’ we reply, ‘How is that known?’ Plastic hasn’t been around long enough for us to confirm that.
Instead of breaking down, it’s more accurate to say plasticbreaksup.
Plastic is indestructible; it was designed to defy nature, and designed not to decompose. Plastic just gets smaller, making it harder to remove from the Ocean.
7. Birds are highly susceptible to plastic ingestion.
It is estimated that over 90% of all seabirds have ingested plastic.
8. There is no giant floating island of plastic at the centre of the Pacific or any other parts of the Ocean.
The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is invisible from the surface.
Plankton nets, however, reveal the true nature of the plastic problem: An accumulation of microplastics that fill up each net in concentrations that increase towards the Ocean’s centre.
9. Plastic acts as a sink for chemicals in the environment, and transports them.
When plastic is mistakenly consumed by marine life, plastic chemicals are released and stored in the fatty tissue of the animal.
Those chemicals travel up the marine food chain, magnifying in concentration on their way up. Eventually, the plastic in fish reaches and gets consumed by people.
10. Chemicals are added to plastic during its production.
Chemicals are added to plastics to give the products certain properties. Some of the chemicals, known endocrine disruptors, have been linked to critical diseases including birth defects, cancer, autoimmune disease, infertility and cognitive and behavioural disorders.
So, plastic isn’t just polluting our Ocean – it’s polluting our bodies.
11. Crustaceans tested at the deepest point of our Ocean have ingested plastic.
Animals from the deepest places on our blue planet have been found with plastic in their stomachs, confirming fears that man-made fibres have contaminated the most remote places on Earth.
12. People living along rivers and coastlines are the most impacted by plastic pollution.
It’s been reported that China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are the most impacted by plastic pollution.
13. Low-income communities face more health impacts near plastic production sites.
Communities with low incomes have greater exposure to toxins and plastic waste, and bear the brunt of the impacts of improper plastic disposal and incineration.
14. Annual plastic production has skyrocketed since the early 1950s, reaching 322 million tonnes in 2015.
These numbers do not include synthetic fibres used in clothing, rope and other products which accounted for 61 million tonnes in 2016.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts a 3.5 – 3.8% growth in plastic production per year through 2050. As of 2019, we’re seeing proof of this – with production of single-use plastics increasing despite our growing awareness of their negative impacts.
15. Bioplastics are not not as green as they seem. Approach with caution.
Though companies often market bioplastics under the same umbrella as biodegradable products, they are not necessarily biodegradable.
Most bioplastics require very specific conditions to break down effectively. They also do not solve the litter or throwaway culture problem.
There are many plastic pollution myths out there. We’re here to dispel myths about plastic pollution and provide science-backed facts about plastic pollution.
What equips Ocean Generation to bust plastic misinformation? Science underpins all of our work; we’ve been experts in Ocean health since 2009 and released an award-winning documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’ in 2016. Learn more about us.
Fact VS Fiction: Here’s what you need to know about plastic.
Myth: ‘There is a huge floating island of plastic out in the Pacific Ocean, 3 times the size of Texas called, ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.’
Simply, there isn’t.
This is a common myth about the Ocean.
There is no giant floating island of plastic at the centre of the Pacific or any other parts of the Ocean.
The so-called ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is invisible from the surface. Plankton nets reveal the true nature of the problem which is an accumulation of microplastics that fill up each net in concentrations that increase towards the Ocean centre.
Myth: ‘A plastic bottle will take 450 years to break down.’
Plastic taking 450 years to break down is one of the biggest plastic myths.
The truth is: Plastic doesn’t breakdown; it breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces.
This statistic – about plastic breaking down – come from old educational materials released by the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The original source adds the caveat that “many scientists believe plastics never entirely go away. These decomposition rates are estimates for the time it takes for these items to become microscopic and no longer be visible.” As well as oversimplifying the risk, this irresponsible statistic about plastic pollution ignores the threat of microplastics.
Plastic is indestructible, it was designed to defy nature, designed not to decompose.
Myth: ‘By 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the Ocean.’
This statement first appeared on a report written by Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum (WEF) and has since been used widely by the public and some organisations.
However, there are a few issues with it.
The estimation number of fish (fish stock) in the Ocean is based on a prediction from a 2008 article. The statistic assumes that fish stocks will stay constant until 2050. This is incredibly unlikely due to pressures from overfishing, climate change, and plastic pollution itself. The authors have since predicted higher Ocean biomass than previously thought.
Our concern is that we are destroying the deep Ocean bed before we even begin to know and understand the marine life there as new species are being discovered all the time.
The projection for the amount of plastic in the Ocean by 2050 was drawn from the well-known 2015 study which only quantifies Ocean plastic up to 2025. According to BBC’s investigation, the lead author voiced their lack of confidence.
Due to these uncertainties, it is best not to use this statement to get across the crux of the message, i.e., we cannot allow the current rate of plastic production to continue, and we must sever our reliance on plastic where possible.
Myth: ‘We can recycle our way out of our plastic pollution problems.’
We need to stop thinking that we can recycle our way out of this mess. Recycling is not the answer to the our wide-scale plastic production and consumption behaviours.
The plastic recycling process is now a circular process.
Only 13% of plastic get recycled and only 1% of plastic produced goes through the recycling process twice.
Plastic production must decrease, yet it is currently increasing exponentially and recycling does nothing to abate this. This is because most plastic decreases in quality each time it is recycled, until it loses its value entirely and virgin plastic must be created.
Myth: ‘We should replace tarmac with recycled plastic for our road surfaces.’
This is a measure supported by some of the biggest producers of plastic waste, yet it is rife with risks.
Studies have already revealed that the second biggest input of microfibres into our Ocean are the fibres that come from car tyres.
How might that increase if we start covering our roads with plastic too?
Research is only beginning into the nanoplastics in the air that we breathe. How might vast stretches of plastic-covered roads contribute to these, especially on hot days?
What can I do about plastic pollution?
You’re already taking action to protect our blue planet: You’re getting informed.
Tackling a problem as big as plastic pollution can feel overwhelming – but it doesn’t have to.
Action you can take against plastic pollution right now
We send our a monthly newsletter with practical actions you can take, Ocean positive stories, and understandable environmental science. No fear-mongering. No big data. No expectations that you become a ‘perfect’ environmentalist.