So far, we have produced 8.3 billion tons of plastic , 40% of which was used for packaging . That’s over a ton of plastic per person alive today . How much of it ends up in the ocean? And what happens to it then?
Of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced, 6.3 billion tons are now waste . Only 9% of that has been recycled, 12% has been burnt, and the other 79% still exists somewhere in its original form . For 8 million tons of plastic a year, this “somewhere” is the ocean . This is like emptying one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute . Plastic pollution has increased 10-fold since 1980 . If we continue to dump plastic into the ocean at an increasing rate, it may weigh more than all marine fish by 2050 .
Some ocean plastic is eaten by animals – why? Plastic usually doesn’t look like food to us humans, but there can be ‘sensory traps’ which trick animals into eating plastic [11,18]. We’ll explain one example:
Plastic tends to congregate in patches in the ocean, due to currents . Lots of phytoplankton (like tiny marine plants) grow on the plastic, and release chemicals which larger animals smell from far away . These chemicals attract animals like albatrosses (big white birds) to the plastic, because the chemicals usually indicate a source of food , likely resulting in them eating plastic by mistake .
But how long does it take for the plastic to disappear? Plastic doesn’t usually naturally biodegrade . It can only be broken down into smaller pieces  or destroyed by the sun’s UV light , which can take hundreds or even thousands of years [6,13]. Plastic in the deep ocean takes a particularly long time to degrade, due to there being very little light and oxygen . Microplastics (small pieces) are almost impossible to remove from the ocean, and if not broken down, will be buried in the seabed and form part of the fossil record [4,9]. People in the future may look back at us as the age of plastics, or the ‘Plasticene’ .
This post is inspired by “Kurzgesagt”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RS7IzU2VJIQ
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