Sadly, it is now common knowledge that our oceans are teeming with plastic. In fact, a garbage truck worth of plastic enters our oceans every single minute. But how does all this plastic get into the ocean?
As Gill from Finding Nemo says “all drains lead to the ocean”. He’s not wrong, all water eventually flows into the oceans. Even rivers and lakes amongst the tallest mountains and hundreds of kilometres inland will eventually empty into the ocean. Rivers, lakes and other bodies of water that flow in the same direction and into the same drainage basin are called watersheds. We have thousands of smaller watersheds in Canada, all of which pool into one of Canada’s five larger, ocean watersheds. So, depending on where you live, the bodies of water near you will eventually flow out into the Pacific Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Hudson Bay, Atlantic Ocean or even the Gulf of Mexico if you find yourself in the southernmost tip of Alberta or Saskatchewan.
With this in mind, it’s clear that plastics that enter any body of water can end up in the ocean. But how does plastic get into the environment in the first place?
1) Direct Dumping
Direct dumping of trash into rivers, oceans or along beaches, as well as careless and improper waste disposal near shorelines, is one contributor to the plastic crisis facing our oceans. Although illegal in many places, cruise ships may dump waste at sea, discharging sewage into surrounding waters that can contain plastic products and particles. Direct dumping of plastic can also occur on the high seas, where it can be difficult to monitor and enforce measures that prohibit this illegal activity.
Open dumps, which are prevalent in some developing countries and are very different than the sanitary, closed landfills we’re used to here in Canada, are another source of direct dumping. Open dumps are low cost but do not have proper standards in place to prevent waste from leaking into the surrounding environment. For decades, Canada, the US and many European countries have been sending waste to less wealthy nations, contributing to the plastic problem halfway across the world by dumping in countries that are not able to manage it appropriately.
2) Indsutrial leaks and spills
Plastic can leak into the environment during different stages of production, but most notably during transportation. New, virgin plastic is typically formed into small plastic pellets, called nurdles, that are then transported to other facilities to be turned into various plastic products. These nurdles are easily and frequently spilled when they are transferred from production facilities onto trucks, train cars and cargo ships, and again when they’re transferred to facilities that make the final plastic products. Nurdles are incredibly small – about 20 milligrams each – making them extremely difficult to clean up if and when they spill, and also making it easy for them to be transported by wind and rainwater into lakes, rivers and oceans.
Transportation of nurdles is risky business, and there are nurdle spills all around the world every year. In fact, it is estimated that more than 250,000 tons of plastic nurdles enter the ocean annually. Just this past spring, a cargo ship off the coast of Sri Lanka caught fire and ended up spilling several containers of plastic nurdles into the surrounding ocean, causing devastation to local wildlife, fishers and nearby beaches. There are also circumstances of shipping containers carrying finished plastic products, like takeout containers, plastic toys and synthetic clothing, getting lost at sea when they fall off of cargo ships during transportation, releasing hundreds or thousands of plastic items into the ocean.
3) Microfibres and plastics that get washed down the drain
Plastic that gets washed down the drain – ranging from microbeads in our toothpaste, to sanitary wipes and cotton buds that get flushed down the toilet, to plastic fibres that are shed from clothing in the washing machine – can all easily make their way into the ocean. Unfortunately, many municipal wastewater treatment facilities are not able to detect microplastics and microfibres, which means they pass through the treatment process and end up directly in our lakes, rivers and oceans.
4) Litter - intentional and unintentional
Litter on the street, in parks and on beaches is one of the first things that comes to mind when we think of ways plastic gets into the environment and the ocean, but unintentional litter is a problem too. Unintentional litter includes plastic waste that is blown out of overflowing trash bins, during transportation to recycling and waste management facilities and plastic that is blown out of landfills. Even if you live hundreds of kilometres away from the ocean, the plastic waste you throw away may find its way into stormwater sewers, lakes or rivers, and can then travel out to sea. Rain, stormwater and wind can carry plastic far and wide – especially lightweight single-use plastics like plastic bags, bottles, takeout containers, coffee cups and straws. And while litter is a problem, it is not on consumers alone; it is an issue perpetuated by the plastic industry. For too long Big Plastic has deflected blame for plastic pollution onto consumers, when in reality it is incredibly irresponsible for industry to create products that last for centuries but are only intended to be used once and then thrown away.
With so many different ways that plastic can make its way into the ocean – from the beginning of its life cycle as plastic nurdles to the end of its life cycle as plastic waste – it is imperative that we reduce this fatal flow of plastic right at the source. We need to reduce the production, consumption and use of plastic by demanding that the government stand up to Big Plastic and implement a strong ban on unnecessary single-use plastics.