The problem of plastic in seas and oceans

The environmental impact of water bottles cannot be underestimated when it comes to the seas and oceans of the world. It seems that as well as paying too much for a resource that’s widely available from a tap, consumers in industrialised nations are also contributing to an eco-disaster.

Each year 50 billion bottles are sold, and US consumers account for 30 million of those. Many are made from a type of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate or PET, which is generally considered to be biodegradable, but that’s not entirely accurate. PET bottles will break down over time, but only into smaller parts, so they will continue to pollute seas, soil and wildlife for hundreds of years.

Environmental activists at Ocean Conservatory have reported that along with plastic shopping bags, plastic bottles are the most commonly found item of trash on beaches and in oceans. They argue that for every square mile of seas there are 46 000 separate bits of plastic bobbing around. Regrettably, it's estimated that 10% of all plastics finish up at sea, with vast amounts sinking to the bottom and never degrading any further.

How Does It Get There?

Plastic can enter our oceans in many different ways, off-shore platforms and ships account for around 20% of sea plastic. Litter is also blown into the sea or left on beaches to be swept out by the tide, but a large proportion is dumped intentionally.

Once it’s there, plastic threatens marine animals, by altering their habitat and damaging the ecosystem. Further threats come in the form of strangulation and digestion, where creatures either get their heads stuck in the bottle neck, or try to eat lumps of plastic – both can swiftly result in death. From tiny specs of coral that have their surroundings polluted to giant whales that ingest toxins from decaying plastics, no ocean life can escape the problem.

The most infamous area of sea plastic is the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of ever-increasing debris made up of cups, lids and water bottles. The patch has two separate zones, one near Japan and the other between the Californian coast and Hawaii. The rubbish stays in place because of the clockwise currents which swirl around it. Once floating plastics become drawn into the vortex, they stay, increasing the patch further and further each year.

Lots of plastic bottles laying on a dark sand beach.

So, Can This Affect Humans?

When sea creatures ingest plastics, there are consequences for the people who will eventually eat them. Toxic chemicals can easily move up the food chain and enter our bodies through seafood. This is worsened by the chemical makeup of plastics, which enables them to soak up further toxins before even moving into the ocean. The most direct forms of harm come from traces of mercury, lead and cadmium, metallic elements which are present in fish and are extremely toxic to humans.

Bisphenol A, or BPA has been used to make plastics for over 50 years. As it ages, this industrial chemical breaks down into polymer chains which can be ingested by fish, then passed to humans. Once it’s in our systems it can cause a range of problems, most notably with hormonal function. A study carried out in 2013, by the academic journal Plos One, entitled ‘Urine Bisphenol-A Level in Relation to Obesity and Overweight in School-Age Children’, even linked BPA exposure to weight gain.

Bottles swimming in ocean

What Can Be Done?

The impact of plastic bottles on ourselves and our oceans is acute, but there are ways in which we can all make a difference. The most helpful method of safeguarding your own health as well as that of our oceans is by switching to reusable, durable bottles. Other small changes which have a sizable impact include, recycling any plastic you do use and making your own fruit juices instead of buying them in plastic bottles.

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These information were not written by the American Food and Drug Administration, or any other official authority. This site and its products do not promise to diagnose and cure diseases, or protect you from them. Always consult your doctor when you are sick.