The Plastic

Types of Plastic

There are all types of plastic found littering our coastline, that need to be removed. The longer they remain, the more they will break down and add to the cloud of microplastic particles that degrade our oceans. There are various compositions of plastic such as HDPE or PP. But for simplicity this page is ordered on the basis of plastic size.

Macro (Big) Plastics

This is the type of ocean plastic we remove. Anything over 5 mm in size.

Virtually every type of plastic humans have ever made, is in the ocean. Plastic bottles, cotton buds sticks, drinks stirrers, coffee cup lids and all manner of single use plastics are a common site.

Alongside these smaller consumer items are a vast number of large industrial origin items, such as crates, pipes, nets, ropes and tanks.

Microplastics

At present we do not remove microplastic from oceans, there are also nano, and meso plastics which are discussed less often.

Although macro plastics are unsightly, their main concern is as a source of microplastics. Microplastics are a real problem, we would rank them up with Global Warming, and ocean acidification.

Microplastics have similar ecological impacts to DDT and PCBs, in terms of their ability to bioaccumulate. DDT was a bad chapter in history, PCBs we are still seeing the effects of.

Microplastics get everywhere. They mess with sea creatures of all sizes, and if you eat fish or seafood. . . . they will affect you too.

Nearly all fish & seafood contains microplastics. A tin of sardines can be as much as 0.03% plastic. If you are a marine predator who lives on fish, this is bad news.

Could You Remove Microplastics from Ocean?

There has been some success removing microplastics from water samples. And various people have given significant thought to it. However, most agree that we will not be able to remove 100%.

One of the major sources of secondary microplastics is beach bound plastic, being broken down by UV rays, and abrasion.

Estimating Sources of Ocean Plastic

Although some plastic enters the sea directly, much enters via rivers. It's not all lazy members of the public though. For example: In the UK sewer companies regularly discharge large quantities of plastic, using storm bypass loop holes, leading to wet wipe islands. Yuck. This is labelled as an emergency measure, but some sewage treatment works operate their strom bypass as often as 200 days in a given year.

We have attempted to gauge the overall sources of ocean plastics, but it is not really possible. But we'll have a go anyway. . . . .

Visible

It is easy to see the above visible ocean plastic. It is a fishing net.


Image credit: Tim Sheerman-Chase Creative Commons

Invisible

But this one. . . not so easy. Fishing net. . maybe. Or teddy bear stuffing, or fibre from jumper. . .the source is more difficult to tell.


Image: M.Danny25

99% of Current Ocean Plastics are "Invisible" Microplastics

The BBC suggest that:

"Media headlines have focussed on the great aggregations of debris that float in gyres or wash up with the tides on coastlines. But this visible trash is thought to represent just 1% of the marine plastic budget. The exact whereabouts of the other 99% is unknown."

Primary & Secondary Microplastics

Primary Microplastics enter the ocean when they are already small. Secondary Microplastics entered the ocean when they were big, but then have broken down to make Microplastics.

Considering primary microplastics, 35% are synthetic textile fibres, and 28% are vehicle tire particles. So these two together make up around 14% of plastic in the oceans in total.

Secondary microplastics make up around 77% of all microplastics in our oceans. There composition is more difficult to gauge, but as they are broken down from a representative range of plastic products that we humans use, we can make some assumptions.

Ocean Plastic - Polymers

The orange donut chart actually represents polymers by demand in industry. But it is safe to assume that this will broadly reflect the nature of ocean plastics.

The main problems is that we need to try and guess what sources these translate in to, whilst accounting for primary microplastics that we have already counted.

Ocean Plastic - Sector

The blue donut chart shows plastic use by sector. There will be a similar representation in the oceans. Although you might expect some industry sectors to be less well represented.

On of the major problems is that not all plastics float, and as such when we clean up a beach or catch plastic in booms & nets, we only see the less dense variants. So although inaccurate when viewed against "found" ocean plastics, the blue donut chart likely represents "actual" ocean plastic inputs.

The by sector donut chart is not however, very fine grained, nor clear. Where is the fishing industry represented for example: But as far as we can see it is the best route for estimation.

So despite the inaccuracies we now have a vague idea of what the main sources of ocean plastic are. Top offenders, that we can single out are:


  1. Packaging Degraded to Secondary Microplastics

  2. Construction Plastics Degraded to Secondary Microplastics

  3. Primary Microplastic Synthetic Fibres from Textiles

Big Stuff ~ 1%

So visible (big) plastic makes up just 1% of plastics in the ocean today. That makes beach cleaning sound unimportant.

But no! Todays beach & coastline plastics are tomorrow's microplastics, they are in urgent need of removal, to prevent yet more hard to remove microplastics entering accumulating in our oceans.


Image: Bob Jones (under Creative Commons)

In the analysis of the above data we can see the 77% approx of all ocean plastics are secondary microplastics, and studies show that the beaches are the primary engines of plastic break down. So we need to grab it now whilst it is still their. Help us please.

For further justification of our method please see further description of "The Gift"