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Spotlight: The Ocean

Facts about plastic waste in the oceans and what each of us can do about it.

The oceans have been used as a plastic waste dump for decades. The WWF estimates that by 2050, plastic waste will take up more space than all the fish swarms of the world together. In this article, we will present figures and correlations (chapter 1), as well as solutions (chapter 2), so that we as consumers will better understand what the current situation is and what we can do to about it.

To date, mankind has produced 8.3 billion tons of plastic worldwide and recycled only a small fraction of it. 8.3 billion tons is equivelent to 55 million jumbo jets. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, one garbage truck full of plastic is dumped in the ocean every minute. By 2030 it will have increased to two garbage trucks per day and by 2050 to four. 90% of plastic is either burned, dumped into landfills or into the ocean. 70% of the waste has already sunken to the ocean floor and will never be recovered.

If we do not act now and find new solutions, we will destroy our oceans. Their inhabitants will die and we humans will suffer massive damage – ecologically, economically and healthwise.

Single-use plastics make up half of all synthetic materials and are only used for a very short period of time. The reduction of single-use plastics alone would make an enormous impact. If we reuse plastics in our own households as long as possible, buy only recycled products, separate our plastic trash, and continually ask ourselves how we can limit our use of plastics further, we have already achieved a lot! Our actions and behaviors will motivate others to do the same and create a movement that will force the industry and lawmakers to react.

1. Figures about Plastic Trash

The world’s oceans cover 71% of our planet. Without them there would be no life on Earth. They create half of the oxygen we breathe – more than all of the rain forests together. They absorb 26% of the world’s CO2 emissions and are home to 80% of life on Earth. 3.5 billion people live in close proximity to the oceans. 60% of humans consume fish for their life-sustaining protein requirements. In the last decades this source of sustenance has been suffering increasing damage. Now it is in imminent danger: our rapid increase in plastic consumption will create one ton of plastic trash for every three tons of fish by 2025. Coast dwellers, tourism and the entire food chain will be massively affected.

1% of Plastic is Biodegradable, the Rest Needs Centuries to Decompose

Synthetics – simply known as plastic – are produced from oil. Today, 8% of the worldwide oil production is used for creating plastics. In 2050, it will be 20%. Plastics are synthetic polymers. The reason for this is that polymers can be produced much more cheaply and often tax-free. The only exception is biodegradable plastic, which accounts for 1% of the current plastic production.

There are four main types of plastics: PE (Polyethylene) accounts for 24% of the worldwide plastic production, PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) accounts for 17%, PP (Polypropylene)  16% and PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) 11%. The rest of plastics are made of PS (Polystyrene) and PUR (Polyerathane).

Plastic trash can be divided into four groups: macroplastics (larger than 25 millimeters), mesoplastics (5-25 millimeters), large microplastic particles (1-5 millimeters) and small microplastic particles (micrometer – 1 millimeter).

Macroplastics – for instance large pieces of plastic like garbage bags, bottles and containers, cigarette filters, plastic balloons, bottle caps or straws – create the most visible form of plastic waste. The synthetics enter the food chain through the bodies of the oceans’ animals. Plastics are mistaken for food, clog the stomach and cause toxic when ingested. The animals perish.

Plastics that are not biodegradable pollute the the environment, on average, for 400 years until they decompose: a fishing line needs 600 years, a diaper or plastic bottle 450 years, a plastic bag 10-12 years, a plastic cup 50 years, a cigarette butt 5 years, a styrofoam take-away box 50 years. The rate of decomposition slows down the deeper the plastic waste sinks into the ocean. Darkness and cold temperatures halt decomposition. In addition, 80% of plastic waste is so low-grade that it is not worth collecting for further use.

In August 2018, the University of Hawaii found that the decomposition of synthetics through UV rays releases measurable amounts of greenhouse gases (methane). The smaller the pieces of plastic are, the more greenhouse gases they emit.

5x More Plastic in 2050

In 1950 the worldwide production of plastic was around 1.7 million tons. By 1990, it had increased to 105 million tons; just 10 years later the production had doubled and amounted to 348 million tons in 2017. Half of the world’s total plastic has been produced since the year 2000. For 2030, 700 million tons are predicted to be produced and even 1,800 million tons for 2050. That would be a 500% increase of plastic production in just 30 years, compared to a 15-25% increase of the world population.

Plastic is produced mostly for packaging (36%), followed by construction (16%), textiles (15%), consumer products (10%), transport (7%), electronics (4%) and other products (12%). One of the main problems is that 72% of packaging is not reused: 40% ends up in landfills and 32% “leaves” the system, meaning is burned or dumped into the ocean. Half of all produced plastic is categorized as single-use plastic.

In 2013, the main manufacturers of plastic were China with a 25% share of worldwide plastic production, followed by Europe and North America (each 20%), Asia (excluding  China and Japan) with 16%, Africa 7%, South America 5%, Japan 4% and 3% allocated amongst the rest of the world’s countries.

Sugarcoated Recycling Data

To date, 8.3 billion tons of plastics have been produced worldwide. 6.3 billion tons have turned into waste; from this 9% has been recycled, 12% burned and 79% ended up in landfills and in the oceans.

Up until 1980, all plastic waste was disposed of in landfills or dumped into the ocean. The filterless incineration of plastics began in 1980. Recycling became popular in the United States towards the end of the 1980s. Today incineration and recycling accounts for 40% of plastic waste removal. The following presents recycling data for 2014 according to region: Europe 30%, USA 9%, China 26%, Japan 25%. 40% of Europe’s remaining plastic waste is incinerated and 30% deposited in landfills.

This is only part of the truth, though: for instance, in Germany, a piece of plastic is “recycled” when it is sent to a sorting plant or added to “material reutilization” shipments. Germans separate 39% of their plastic waste and transfer it to waste management companies. This procedure is considered “recycled” for statistical purposes. This is not necessarily the case, however, because no one really knows what happens afterwards. The waste could be sold and shipped to Asia, creating further CO2 emissions. Upon delivery, it is incinerated and partly ends up in the ocean. This is a dangerous sham: the WWF estimates that only 6% of Europe’s plastic waste is actually recycled.

According to DER SPIEGEL, in 2017, 14.4 million metric tons of plastic were newly introduced in Germany. 64% were produced for further use, while 36% turned into private and commercial consumer waste. Only 5.6% of the yearly plastic production was actually recycled in Germany and used to create recylced plastics (0.81 million metric tons). That amounts to 15.6% of end consumer waste. The majority (3.4 million metric tons) was incinerated or used as surrogate fuel. 0.71 million metric tons were exported as waste – a portion of this was shipped to Asia. In 2018, Malaysia alone received 170 thousand metric tons of Germany’s plastic waste, which was either incinerated or dumped into the ocean. Another recipient of plastic waste is Romania – where Europe’s largest waste disposal site is located and where illegal waste transport is often reported.

Our Waste ends up in Asia, in Landfills or in the Ocean

European and North American plastic is shipped to Asia in large amounts and incinerated or dumped into the ocean – both legally and illegally. While the West believes it is improving its recycling quotas, the air, rivers and oceans of Asia are, in reality, becoming ever more polluted. We need to be aware of the fact that the shipment of this waste alone is a crime to the environment, as these container ships emit large amounts of CO2.

The portion of “unsorted” waste, i.e. plastic waste that lands in the oceans accounts for more than 50% of the national plastic waste in the largest plastic waste recipient countries in Asia (China, Indonesia, Philippinen, Sri Lanka, Vietnam). In an attempt to curtail the resulting, substantial air pollution, China began rejecting plastic waste deliveries from Europe and North America in 2018.

In addition to the highly polluted coastlines in Asia and on the Mediterranean, there are five zones worldwide in which compounded plastic waste has accumulated into garbage whirlpools, known as “garbage patches.” Two of these are found in the Pacific Ocean, two in the Atlantic Ocean and one in the Indian Ocean.

The largest is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) which, in 2018, had an estimated surface area of 1.6 million km² (4.5x larger than Germany) and weighed an estimated 79,000 metric tons.

The Ocean: Our Waste Dump

In 2017, there already were 150 million tons of plastic trash in the world’s oceans and every year an estimated 13 million more tons are added. This accounts for 60-95% of ocean waste. Arguably, 80% of that waste comes from rivers and 20% directly from ships (Garbage from fishing nets, buoys, container wrecks, aqua cultures, dumping at sea, etc.).

This 80/20 ratio can be called into question, however, as no one knows what actually happens out at sea. Due to the fact that more than half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of waste from the fishing industry and that 90% of worldwide trading is shipped via container ships, it is very likely that the shipping industries contribute substantially more to the pollution. In 2017 the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research found that the world’s rivers carry up to 4 million tons of plastic waste into the oceans; 90% of this waste stems from the world’s 10 largest rivers, of which 8 are located in Asia. These numbers also indicate that the rivers’ contribution to pollution is far less and that ships must therefore contribute far more. The uncontrolled dumping from coasts must also be considered.

35% of surface plastics are found in the North Pacific, 22% in the Indian Ocean, 21% in the North Atlantic, 9% in the Mediterranean, 8% in the South Pacific and 5% in the South Atlantic. These numbers serve as an indication for the collective pollution of the world’s oceans. The Mediterranean’s contribution is especially noticeable. Europe “disposes” of 150,000 to 500,000 tons of macroplastics into the Mediterranean every year and additionally 70,000 to 130,000 tons of microplastics. This waste is a serious threat to the Mediterranean’s animal and plant life. The microplastic concentration in the Mediterranean is almost four times higher than it is in the plastic whirlpool that was discovered in the North Pacific.

According to UNEP, 15% of plastic waste is found on the ocean surface, 15% in the middle layers of the ocean and 70% are already embedded in the ocean floor – a 3sat TV documentary titled The Plastic Flood from February 2019 suspects it is closer to 99%.

Consequences for the Economy and Ecology

The UNEP estimates the cost of ocean waste at $8 billion yearly – with an increasing trend. Plastic waste is destroying tourism, creating health hazards for the maritime animal and plant life, negatively influencing fishing, damaging fish fleets, and polluting beaches and coastlines. Tourism alone is suffering losses of $622 million every year due to beach pollution. Bali even proclaimed a garbage emergency at the end of 2017.

The ecological damages are manifold. On the one hand, between 57,000 and 135,000 whales, seals and sea lions perish every year in free-floating fishing nets (so-called ghost nets). What’s more, the food chain is being considerably damaged: sea turtles are mistaking plastic for jellyfish, fish are consuming plastics instead of krill, sea birds are diving for plastic instead of fish, and whales are swallowing microplastics instead of plankton by the tons. The majority of the over 1,300 types of marine and coastal animal species is ingesting unthinkable amounts of plastic into their bodies, they suffer from the pollution of their habitat and ultimately perish. The UN Ocean Conference announced in 2017 that plastic waste has resulted in the deaths of around 1 million sea birds, 100,000 ocean mammals, sea turtles and endless numbers of fish.

Microplastics are created from wear abrasion of car tires, industrial production of granulate, textiles, paints and construction materials, from cosmetics and detergents, and through the decomposition of macroplastics in the ocean. In 2018, Austrian scientists from the Medical University of Vienna found microplastics in human stool samples. Microplastics were even found in mineral water: in 2017, the Chemical and Veterinary Office of Muensterland-Emscher-Lippe (CVUA) found microplastic in all 38 mineral waters tested – regardless whether they came from plastic or glass bottles.

In the same year, a worldwide study of tap water samples commissioned by Orb Media found that 83% of the tested water contained microplastics. Microplastics were also found in beer, sea salts and even in honey. Professor Gerd Liebezeit from the University of Oldenburg assumes that microplastics now exist in the atmosphere and that foods are therefore contaminated directly from the air.

The dangers that microplastics pose are currently being researched worldwide. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research has already launched 18 different projects on this subject. One can assume that microplastics end up in organs and bodily fluids and create health problems from within.

2. Suggested Solutions

We at Orange Ocean recommend changes in the following three areas: change in consumer behavior, intervention by lawmakers and commitments by the industry.

Consumer: Our impact begins with our behavior and what we buy. If we reuse packaging, favor recycled products and products packaged in glass, paper or biodegradable materials, avoid single-use plastics and products containing microplastics (cosmetics and detergents), we have already taken a huge step. Food can be stored in glass or reusable containers. It should be a no-brainer that plastic waste left over from parties or outdoor events is disposed of properly. Consistent and proper trash separation is just as important as not littering on the street. Changes to daily chores can also be made, such as washing textiles made from microfibers in appropriate fleece sacks to avoid microplastic contamination into the water.

Law Makers: National and international institutions must rethink their laws regarding packaging. Germany is Europe’s leader in terms of packaging with 220 kg per capita per year (EU average is 163 kg). The industry must be pushed to action: regulations regarding higher recycling quotas are long overdue – more recycled and recyclable plastics must be incorporated into production processes. We need more biodegradable plastics and a taxation on plastics. We need bans on single-use plastics, microplastics in cosmetics and in detergents and the abolishment of tax subsidies. We need an efficient and transparent waste management system and an improved recycling system, as well as bans on waste exports and incentive programs. We need a consistent disposal of plastic waste at ports and on beaches and incentives for the shipping industry to stop the dumping of plastic waste. An important step in the right direction is the passage of the EU ban on single-use plastics in 2018 that will come into effect in 2021.

Industry and Commerce: The industry must contribute significantly by improving its product and packaging designs and by entering into a circular economy. This means, for instance, reducing the weight and amount of packaging their products require, increasing the usage of recycled or biodegradable packaging, and introducing return programs for plastic packaging.

In accordance with the UN sustainability goals the Danish furniture manufacturer Mater has created their entire furniture collection from recycled materials. 40% of the Ocean Chair, for example, is made out of old fishing nets from the Atlantic Ocean. Used fishing nets that would otherwise land in the ocean and harm animals are being sold in Scandanavian ports and converted into synthetic materials.

Another great example of sustainable industry comes from the US-American firm Suga, which produces yoga mats made from old wetsuits. Wetsuits worn by the likes of surfers and divers are not biodegradable. Suga even accepts customers’ worn-out yoga mats for repeated recycling. Over 12,000 wetsuits that would have otherwise added to the waste problem have already been collected and converted into yoga mats.

Also deserving of praise are the companies McRebur und ByFusion, which use recycled plastic for the construction of streets and houses, the German start-up Kaffeeform, which created to-go cups out of coffee grounds, and the organic company Eosta, which has replaced plastic packaging for fruits and vegetables with labels imprinted by laser. These are just examples of the increasing amounts of innovative industry solutions.

Commercial companies must also strive to reduce the usage of single-use plastics. We are delighted that several German supermarket outlets have reduced the amount of plastic packaging used and are continuing to do so.

We are only at the start of an important development towards a circular economy. The next years will bear many innovative solutions to the plastic problem. A new industry is being generated that will stimulate the economy.

Life Comes from the Ocean

The ocean is the source of life and the place of respite for us humans. Unfortunately, we are being confronted with a second climate catastrophe. The plastic pollution in our oceans is progressing quickly and the consequences are dramatic and long-term. And the good news? We can all do something about it, every day. As consumers, we play a central role. With our consumption and disposal behavior we can curtail the plastic pollution and give an important signal to the industry and to lawmakers.

Sources

WWF, 2017: Plastikmüll in den Weltmeeren;
WWF, 2018: Wege aus der Plastikfalle;
SPIEGEL, 2019: Ausg. 4; Mogelpackung – Von wegen Vorreiter: Deutschlands Recycling-System ist Müll, S. 10-21;
UNEP, 2016: Marine Plastic Debris & Microplastics;
Plastic Oceans, 2018: A Plastic Ocean;
National Geographic, 2018: Planet or Plastic? Fast facts about plastic pollution;
Ourworldindata, 2018: Plastic Pollution;
Greenpeace, 2018: Key Facts about plastic pollution;
Deutsche Meeresstiftung, 2018; Die Weltmeere verdrecken durch Abwässer und Plastikmüll;
Das Problem Plastikmüll muss in erster Linie an Land gelöst werden;
Alfred-Wegener-Institut, 2018: 10 Fragen und Antworten zum Müll im Meer;
Deutsche Welle, 2017: Es gibt 8,3 Milliarden Tonnen Plastik auf der Welt;
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016: The new plastics economy – rethinking the future of plastics;
Mater: Collection 2019;
Suga, 2019;
Science et Avenir, 2017: Le plastique colonise les océan;
United Nations, 2017: The Ocean Conference;
3sat, 2019: Die Plastikflut, Ausstrahlung 21.02.19;
University of Hawaii, 2018: Greenhouse gases linked to degrading plastic;
CVUA, 2018;
Zeit Online, 2018: Das Plastik in uns;
NDR.de, 2015: Plastikteilchen in Lebensmitteln gefunden;
Orb Media, 2017: Synthetic Polymer Contamination in Global Drinking Water.