Plastic Pollution: A Bird's-Eye View

Peter Pan Flying, by j4p4n,

Peter Pan Flying, by j4p4n,

Last updated April 30, 2019

Plastic is alive and well on planet Earth. From the tiniest microsized particles to bottles and bags, plastic lives in our oceans, rivers, streams, landfills and in the bellies of sea critters. With recycling programs in almost every community across the U.S. and other countries, why is there so much plastic pollution in our waterways?

plastic pollution and gyres

We begin this journey at sea. In fact, let's pretend we're flying above Earth like birds—the vast Pacific Ocean glimmering below. Our first stop is the North Pacific Gyre, the largest ecosystem on the planet.

Gyres are systems of circulating currents that contain natural and man-made debris, most of which remains near the center. In all, Earth's oceans have five gyres. But the North Pacific Gyre is the largest—home to the Eastern Pacific garbage patch, located between Hawaii and California and estimated to be between the size of Texas and twice the size of the continental United States. Yet, no one knows its true size.

By LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps. (NOAA Photo Library: fish1966) [CC BY 2.0 ( or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps. (NOAA Photo Library: fish1966) [CC BY 2.0 ( or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Passing over Kamilo Beach, Hawaii—home to humpback whales, rare turtles, and colorful fish—we observe bottle caps, wrappers, cigarette butts, lawnmowers and even grocery carts, littering the shoreline. Because garbage gets trapped in gyres for, sometimes, years, it washes on to beaches when currents shift.

Though if you're imagining a dump in the middle of the ocean, think again. You might notice a few large pieces of plastic floating on top of the water; but most of the plastic waste consists of microplastics, which are dispersed in the top layer of the water column. These small plastic pieces are so tiny that they go undetected by satellites and, also, divers.

But in reality, only 3 percent of plastic pollution lies within these gyres. The rest is evenly dispersed throughout the oceans, and many microplastics have already sunk to the ocean floor. In fact, in the Mediterranean Sea, there are 1000 times more microplastics at the bottom than at the top.

Types of plastic pollution, macroplastics

Plastic pollution comes in different sizes and forms, each impacting the environment in distinct ways. Larger-sized plastics, also known as macroplastics, include plastics that are visible to the naked eye. And because the media has highlighted the hazards of plastic pollution in recent years, most people have become aware of one of the most problematic macroplastics on the planet: plastic bags. Every year, around 100,000 sea animals suffocate from ingesting them. Sadly, birds, turtles, whales, fish and other marine life mistake plastic bags for food. But other types of macroplastics also harm wildlife. In the Pacific, albatross chicks die from feeding on bottle caps, toys and other plastic items, too. A recent study has even linked plastic pollution to coral infections

from land to sea

But how does so much plastic end up in our waterways?—one reason is because the world produces tons of it! For example, in 1950, plastic production was estimated at 1.9 million tons and increased to around 330 million tons in 2013. Though a lot of the plastic in our oceans originates from densely populated coastal areas. People thoughtlessly toss plastic waste into gutters—which empty into Earth's oceans—and, also, dump it into rivers and lakes. On the Meuse River, which flows through France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, scientists counted 70,000 pieces of plastic per square meter. Of those, 500 were at least an inch or larger. And most of this plastic waste eventually makes it to the sea.

countries most responsible for plastic pollution 

Though the amount of plastic entering our waterways varies by country. According to a study in 2015, China produces most of the world's plastic pollution. Yet, the US takes a disappointing 20th place, due in part to our densely populated coastal areas and our consumerism. And because China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines only collect around 40 percent of garbage through waste management programs, these countries combined create over half the world's plastic pollution.

But the uncollected garbage is only three-fourths of the problem. One-fourth of all plastic pollution derives from poorly protected landfills built near waterways. Plastic easily escapes into rivers and streams, and, ultimately, the ocean. According to a report by the Ocean Conservancy, by 2025, our oceans could contain 3 tons of plastic for every 1 ton of fish.

other countries aren't off the hook

Although it's tempting to blame the plastic pollution problem on China and its neighbors, other countries are also at fault. In fact, the European Union, North America and Japan are top exporters of plastic waste to China. 

China processed trash from 43 countries in addition to its own in 2016, and high-income countries are responsible for nearly 90 percent of plastic exports since 1988.
— Ellen Airhart, Wired, June 20, 2018

Though in November of 2017, China stopped accepting the world's trash; they will only process uncontaminated plastic—meaning, very, very clean—which is a hard criteria for communities to meet because it requires specialized facilities and funds that most cities don't have. Meanwhile, plastic waste has started accumulating in the U.S. and other countries that relied on China to deal with the plastics problem. And this creates the risk that even more plastics could reach our waterways. 


when macroplastics break down

But what happens when plastic is exposed to the elements? Over time, larger-sized plastics break down into smaller pieces through the forces of wind and waves and the weathering effects of ultraviolet light. Yet, most break down through photo-oxidation on land. Regardless of the mechanism, though, the resulting tiny fragments are 5 mm or less in size, or just under one-fourth of an inch, and are commonly known as microplastics. 

Close to 88 percent of our oceans' top layers contain microplastics, which are colonized by bacteria, algae and fungi. Yet, microplastics also act as sponges for pollutants, including dioxin and PCBs. And something else to consider, too, is that toxic additives, such as phthalates and BPA, which are used in manufacturing plastics, escape into the environment as plastics break down.

Microplastics in our food web

Microplastics enter our food web via zooplankton, a food source for both young and adult salmon. In fact, in the Strait of Georgia, scientists estimate that adult salmon ingest approximately 91 microplastic particles a day. And this is worrisome because microplastics absorb pollutants, which are then deposited in the tissues of marine animals. Humans and other animals subsequently eat these sea critters, pollutants and all. It's unsettling to think that, based on scientific data, humpback whales could be ingesting up to 300,000 microplastic particles a day!

And because microplastics are so small, scientists have even detected them in seafood. For example, in mussels, microplastics can cross from the digestive system into blood cells. But they can also pass through the gills of crabs and fish. In fact, Belgian researchers found approximately 90 microplastic fragments in a typical order of mussels from German farms and French markets. And when scientists tested fish samples from California and Indonesion markets, one-fourth had microplastics and fibers in their stomachs. Though seafood isn't the only source of microplastics in humans' diets. Researchers also discovered microplastics in sea salt from China and Spain.

Yet, it's important to point out that only a few studies suggest that ingesting plastic is harmful to marine life. On the other hand, other studies correlate microplastics with inflammation in mussels and other sea animals. And, so far, scientists don't know what the implications are for humans—as these microplastics and their free-riding pollutants drift up the food chain.


One type of microplastic is microbeads. These are micro- and nano-sized plastics that manufacturers add to cleaning products, scrubs, toothpastes and other beauty products. But because of the Micro-beads Free Water Act of 2015, companies must stop using microbeads in their products by July 2017. Even though this is an important piece of legislation, microbeads are not nearly as plentiful as microplastics, resulting mostly from the breakdown of plastics on our beaches. Yet, microbeads are much more likely to escape wastewater treatment plants into waterways that lead to oceans. And just like other microplastics, microbeads also attract pollutants.


But the most abundant microplastics are microfibers. These tiny fibers derive from synthetic clothing and enter sewers through washing machines. Ecologist Mark Brown discovered that 1,900 fibers wash off a single synthetic garment. And, unlike natural fibers, microfibers don't break down for a long time. Interestingly, Brown contacted numerous apparel manufacturers to support his research on microfibers in our waterways. Eileen Fisher—a women’s clothing brand focused on sustainable fashion—responded with a $10,000 grant to help fund part of his work. Continued research on microfibers is important, though, because many scientists fear that microfibers are just as harmful to the environment as other microplastics, since marine animals consume these nearly invisible strands.

A bird's-eye view

So let's return to the Eastern Pacific garbage patch and hover above it for a moment. Looking out across the ocean, you'll notice large pieces of plastic occasionally floating past. And if you peer down into the ocean with your binoculars—you did remember to bring them, didn't you?—colorful, swirling microplastics are visible in the top column of water. But what's even more alarming is that if you use a magical pair of binoculars, you'll spot microfibers and microbeads all the way down to the sea floor. Now, leaving the Northern Pacific Gyre behind, let's check on other bodies of water. Sadly, the views are all too familiar: From the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, plastic pollution inhabits our waterways.  

Our current path

Currently, we use 6 percent of global oil for plastic production. Without vast changes, that amount could increase to 20 percent by 2050. Yet, communities collect only 14 percent of plastics for recycling, and only 8 percent of this actually gets recycled. But here's the worst part: Plastic pollution in our oceans is increasing by eight million tons each year. And although individual groups, communities and nations are working on solutions, at present, an orchestrated effort to solve the plastic problem isn't looming on the horizon.

Agents of change

So what will it take to get plastic out of our oceans? I wish I had a surefire solution, and it's human nature to feel a sense of hopelessness. But since I first wrote this piece a couple of years ago, change is in the wind. For Example, McDonald's plans to substitute paper straws for plastic in the UK and Ireland by 2019. And communities and restaurants across the U.S. are following suit. Through the efforts of journalists, blogs, and organizations, such as the Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5Gyres and others, businesses and governments around the globe have become aware of the pervasive amount of plastics in our oceans.

But individuals can make a difference, too. If everyone makes a commitment to reduce plastic use, one item at a time, we can lead through example and make a dent in our plastics economy. Even though, in my opinion, ridding our oceans of plastics will ultimately require large-scale buy-in from local and international groups, by shifting to plastic-free goods and packaging—as much as possible—we become agents of change. And that is much more productive than feeling helpless.     —Laura