Plastic pollution is affecting our ocean's environment.
Plastic and chemical pollution is affecting our environment, the marine life, and our health. Image: Cristian Palmer / Unsplash

The health of the ocean is one of the biggest concerns we have regarding our future. Worldwide, our pollution has been making its way out to sea for years and has left its mark on marine life and coral reefs. Put simply, our whole environment is affected by ocean pollution.

The ocean is what we rely on to regulate the climate; it contains over 97% of the world’s water and supplies us with more than 50% of our oxygen. It plays an essential role in our very existence, so we must seek to further understand the immediate and long-term consequences of pollution. 

How does ocean pollution affect the environment? This article will look at how ocean pollution affects the environment and its impact on both marine life and human health. As a traveller who is primarily based in Southeast Asia, I have seen the drastic changes that single-use plastic has created. Our dependency on plastic and our reliance on it for convenience mean that we are now in crisis. From the city to the beach, one thing is clear, plastic is everywhere!

How Does Pollution End up in the Ocean?

It is estimated that we are polluting the ocean with around 12.7 million tonnes of plastic a year; the damage we are doing to marine life and our ecosystem is becoming irreparable. The harsh reality is that by 2050, experts predict that ocean plastic will outweigh the biomass of all the fish in the sea. 

According to National Geographic, “common types of marine debris include various plastic items like shopping bags and beverage bottles, along with cigarette butts, bottle caps, food wrappers, and fishing gear.” 

Two main types of pollution are entering the ocean; plastic and chemical. Ocean pollution is highly concerning for health, environmental, and economic reasons. 

So just how does the pollution make its way into the ocean?

Litter in the Ocean

Quick Facts: 

  • Around 8 million pieces of plastic make their way into our oceans every day.
  • 88% of the sea’s surface is polluted by plastic waste.
  • Globally we use over 500 billion plastic bags a year. 
  • 381 million tonnes of plastic waste is produced annually.
  • The majority of pollutants come from human activity on land and at sea.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 80% of all ocean pollution originates on land. The highest contributor to marine pollution is septic tanks, cars and farms.

Non-Point Source Pollution: This is any source of pollution that occurs due to runoff, such as heavy rain or flooding. The water makes contact with chemicals or toxic waste and then runoff out to sea via local waterways. 

Source Pollution: This is any source of pollution where pollutants are discharged and can include a pipe, ship, factory or smokestack. Source pollution can come from large farms that manage livestock, waste management systems such as sewage treatments and other large factories that handle toxic chemicals. 

Land Pollution & Landfills: The plastic and waste that we throw away can easily be washed into storm drains, rivers and out into the ocean. Carried away by the wind, illegally dumped, burned or thrown directly into the rivers; these are just a few examples.

Microplastics: Plastic never entirely disappears. Microbeads and Microfibres are washed down the drain from the shower, toilet or laundry, and cause harm to marine life. It is best to avoid products with toxic chemicals, plastic microbeads and switch to eco-friendly products that are certified non-toxic or plastic-free. 

The Fishing Industry: Dumped fishing gear, also known as ghost gear, is bad news for marine life. Fishing nets, lines, pots and traps used in commercial fishing are a significant contributor to ocean pollution and the destruction of coral reefs. Marine life is easily tangled in nets and lines, causing injury and death. One study found that as much as 70% (by weight) of macroplastics found floating on the ocean’s surface was related to the fishing industry.

How Does Ocean Pollution Affect the Environment?

Plastic waste is particularly problematic as a pollutant because it is so long-lasting. Did you know that plastic items take hundreds of years to decompose? The trash, no matter what form, poses a severe risk to both animals and humans. Chemical pollution from heavy metals, oils and pesticides are highly toxic. The majority of the waste, over 90%, comes from just 10 river systems.

I have seen first hand how the waste created in the city, which is not properly disposed of, ends up in the local river systems. Trash is often illegally dumped, burned, thrown into the river or canals on purpose or left on the side of the road. In areas that lack sufficient resources and education for safe waste management; it ends up polluting the ocean.

How Does Ocean Pollution Affect Human Health?

Ocean pollution is a clear threat to human health because a large percentage of the global population relies on seafood availability for consumption. Chemicals such as oil, mercury, lead, pesticides, and other heavy metals can contaminate water supplies and our food chain. Research outlines ocean pollution as a combination of metals, plastics, chemicals, petroleum, industrial waste, pharmaceutical chemicals, farm and agricultural runoff, sewage and urban waste. 

How Does Ocean Pollution Affect Marine Life?

Plastic is threatening the lives of millions of marine animals. What we see on the surface or washed up on the shore is just a fraction of a much bigger problem. Microplastics are tiny particles that have slowly broken down over time and are consumed in the marine animal’s food cycle causing health concerns and even death. Ocean pollution affects whales, turtles, dolphins, sharks, fish, sea birds, and are frequently injured from debris and unable to survive. 

  • Marine life is quickly entangled in debris such as fishing nets and plastic. 
  • Fish that consume microplastics are then caught for human consumption. 
  • The plastic debris consumed by marine life such as turtles and whales is life-threatening.
  • Marine organisms and bacteria can disrupt healthy ecosystems and reefs.

What will Happen if we Keep Polluting the Ocean?

The harsh reality is that by 2050, experts predict that ocean plastic will outweigh the biomass of all the fish in the sea. Climate change, sea-level rise and warming temperatures will continue to worsen and reduce the health of the coral reefs and the ocean. Warmer oceans result in coral bleaching and scientists predict that by 2034, the oceans will be severely under stress. A warmer climate means less oxygen; making it impossible for certain marine species to survive. 

The impact of pollution in our oceans:

We can only begin to imagine that vast amount of waste, plastic and debris that has made its way out into the ocean. Excessive marine pollution has helped create over 500 dead zones in the ocean. In this area, there is not enough oxygen supply for the ecosystem and marine life to survive.

How Much Plastic Washes up on Beaches?

Even on the furthest, most remote islands, plastic is washing up on the coastline. Destinations that were once considered untouched tropical paradise are struggling to cope with the garbage that washes up every day on the beach. For monsoonal countries, the rain season and strong currents and the wind bring trash and debris. Research shows that more than 8 million tons of discarded plastic end up in our oceans every year!

How does Plastic Affect Tourism?

Have you ever planned your vacation to tropical paradise only to be disappointed at the trash washing up on the beach? Do you scuba dive? Snorkel? Swim? Surf? No matter how you spend your time, one thing is for certain, plastic is everywhere. Protecting the planet is a global concern and our collective responsibility. Everyone can play an essential role in reducing single-use plastic. 

Why is Ocean Pollution Terrible?

We can now see the negative impact that ocean pollution has on the environment, marine life, and human health. There is no better time to start considering how we can make a change and protect the ocean; start with simple steps like following campaigns, attending a beach clean-up, watching educational documentaries, reconsidering your consumption of seafood and making a daily habit of saying no to single-use plastic. 

Final Thoughts

After learning about ocean pollution, you may be wondering what you can do to help or you might be feeling slightly disconnected from the problem if you are living far from the ocean. The important takeaway is that we can all play a role in making a difference to the planet. How? Reducing single-use plastics both at home and when we travel is a great place to start. There are so many wonderful eco-friendly alternatives that allow us to refuse plastic and be more mindful of our environmental impact. If you are near the ocean, join a local beach clean, or simply go for a walk and collect what you see. You might be surprised how much plastic debris you can find on the sand.