Waste In Oceans – Basic Questions And Answers

How does waste in oceans get into the sea at all? What is so dangerous about plastic floating around in oceans? Why do animals eat our plastic garbage? Ten questions on the topic of “waste in oceans”.

waste dump oceans (c) Steve Spring - Marine Photobank
waste dump oceans (c) Steve Spring – Marine Photobank

NABU, a Berlin based organisation, has been looking after nature, wildlife and humans since 1899. Their manifold activities and tasks include the protection of endangered species, preservation of rivers, moors, lakes and oceans. And, last but not least, to get humans out into nature again. To enjoy it, to see how precious it is. Plus, to make them understand that a lot needs to be done to keep it all in a healthy state.

Every now and then, news will bring some information on waste in oceans. They cover its extent, apocalyptic future, and it is all our fault (of course). Many folks, however, would like to have a basic understanding of how this came about, the danger coming with it and – ideally – what to do.

NABU has put together a couple of questions and answers on this topic, and here they are.

How does waste get into the sea?

Inflows from land count for something like 80% of all the garbage in the oceans. The remaining 20% are direct results from activities on sea like shipping, fishing and the offshore industry. The includes e.g. research, oil and gas platforms as well as aquaculture sites.

On land, what are the largest originating sources for all the garbage that gets thrown into the sea?

The main inflow is from urban wastewater. Washouts from waste dumps plus the illegal disposal of waste in agricultural surroundings as well as tourism are also major contributors. Rivers and extraordinary floods carry and move all that debris into the oceans.

How long does waste exist in the oceans?

Approximately 75% of the waste is made of plastic. Once in the sea it is close to everlasting. With the influence of saltwater, sun and friction, it gets ground to mini bits and pieces gradually (microplastic). A plastic bag will take 10-20 years, a PET bottle up to 450 years until kind of decomposed.

What is so dangerous about plastic in oceans?

Plastic decomposes very slowly. As mentioned above, saltwater, sun and constant friction grind it to microplastics. During that process poisonous substances are set free and released into the oceans. Also, lots of animals die getting caught in lost fishing equipment or plastic debris. Or by swallowing waste which they cannot digest.

What is the global extent of this pollution?

Each year, 300 million tons of plastic get produced. More than 10 million tons end up as waste in oceans (estimate by UNEP). This means, on each square kilometre of ocean up to 18.000 pieces of plastic of all sizes are floating on the surface.

Where does all the waste in oceans end up?

Only 15% of all the waste in oceans floats on the surface. More than 70% sinks to the bottom of the ocean, the remaining 15% get washed ashore.

What is the waste situation like in Baltic Sea and North Sea?

Something like 20.000 tons of waste get into the North Sea each year. Research by OSPAR shows that up to 712 pieces of debris are found on 100 metres of coastline. There is not really any reliable data available yet for the Baltic Sea. NABU has conducted first researches, with the result being 90 pieces of waste on Fehmarn, 41 on Ruegen (per 100 metres of coastline).

Why do animals eat plastic waste?

Many marine animals mistake plastic with their natural food. Turtles, for example, think that plastic bags are jellyfish. Seabirds mistake small pieces of plastic for cuttlebone. They gulp down that plastic and use it to feed their offspring. Once eaten, they cannot digest the plastic and will starve eventually.

What is a gyre (waste gyre)?

The gyres are indeed a very special phenomenon. Five massive gyres collect gigantic carpets of waste in the centre of the oceans. The most famous gyre is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. It has reached a size the equivalent of Middle Europe.

What is the aim of the project “Fishing For Litter“?

NABU and its partners enable local fishermen to dispose of garbage they collect with their daily catch. In addition to that, the waste brought in by fishermen is specifically sorted and evaluated. The idea behind the evaluation is to derive mitigating actions.

The main part of this article has been written by NABU and published on their website (in German – their version here).

Useful information? Please share and spread the word!

Please share this article with your friends so they can also get details about plastic pollution and waste in oceans.

More of this?

Since the initial publication of this article I have posted more information related to “Oceans and Environment”. This includes updated facts and figures, as well as individual cleanup projects. A list of those posts you can find with the tag “Oceans & Environment“.

Let’s take care of our planet,


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