How to get plastic out of the ocean?

Article by Isabel Key and Mina Frost.

In our last two posts we talked about ocean plastic and how it harms the planet. Let’s see what scientists have in store to solve this problem:

Some people are working on using bacteria to degrade ocean plastic [1], but currently there is little understanding of the full consequences [15]. Another approach is to filter the plastic out bit by bit. This is sometimes done with nets, but so far this has not been done on a large scale [2].

A more technological solution is proposed by The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit company that develops machines to collect plastic from parts of the ocean where it naturally builds-up [3]. However, there are critics saying that the project is not very effective and has negative side-effects [4,5].

In the end, the best way to avoid ocean plastic is to not let plastic enter the ocean in the first place [8,9]. Let’s see how:

About 80% of ocean plastic comes from land [7], mostly via rivers [6]. Over two-thirds of this is estimated to be from just 20 rivers, most of which are in Asia [10]. Improving plastic disposal in these areas could hugely reduce the plastic entering rivers. Moreover, we can collect plastic from rivers before it enters the sea [11,14]. Microplastics could be removed using filters [12].

The remaining 20% of ocean plastic comes from ships [6]. There are already laws to prevent littering of fishing gear into the ocean, but they are not fully effective [13]. So, we need better enforcement of these laws. This should also benefit fishermen in the long-term since its estimated that floating plastic costs fishermen up to 5% of revenue e.g. through damage to nets and propellers [13].

We conclude: improving plastic disposal and recycling could have a huge effect and should be our primary focus in the fight against ocean plastic.


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