Plastics: Frequently Asked Questions


1. Where do plastics in the ocean come from?


Plastic can enter the oceans from land-based or from sea-based sources. 80% come from land-based sources, either from coastal regions or from polluted rivers. The plastics getting in the oceans or rivers from land are either coming through the sewage system, often from storm water drains that are discharging into nearby waterways or it is blown by the wind from landfills, close to the coast or rivers. Agriculture plastic waste from films or fertilizer coatings also plays a role. Another important factor is littering along the coasts and beaches, specifically in summer in areas with high tourism.

The plastic items found most often on beaches, in Europe and globally, are plastic bottles, plastic bags, packaging and food containers, including straws and cutlery, as well as wet wipes.

It is believed that 20% of plastics in the ocean comes from sea-based sources, mostly lost and discarded fishing nets and other plastic waste from fishing and agriculture. But plastic can also come from shipping, marine transport or oil platforms for example.

Microplastics, tiny pieces that are too small to be filtered by the sewage system enter the waterways through the sewage system or directly, including plastic wear from tyres, fibres from polyester clothes or painting, or microbeads from cosmetics.


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2. How much plastic ends up in the ocean?


Globally, an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastics enter the ocean every year. This is roughly equivalent to dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the oceans every minute. Estimations on how much plastic reaches the oceans in the European Union generally vary. A rough estimation says around 8 million metric tons globally, meaning somewhere in the rage of 150.000 tons per year.

While plastic litter swimming on the surface, for example in the so called “great garbage patches”, is the most noticeable proof for plastic pollution of the oceans, about 94% of plastics already in the oceans are found on the seafloor.


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3. How long does it take for plastic to disappear?


Even though plastics sometimes are only used for a few moments, they are made to last forever. Plastic never goes away, instead it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. So, although plastic doesn’t degrade, it does break down into microplastics, which can be as small as a millimeter in diameter and act like magnets for harmful pollutants. Some microplastics are so small that zooplankton at the base of the ocean food chain can consume them. That way, the potentially chemical-laden microplastics can accumulate in the bodies of ever-larger predators, making their way into the fish and seafood humans eat. Scientists are still studying how we might be affected by the plastics that are making their way into our food, water and air.

The most durable plastic items, such as bottles, disposable nappies and beer holders, can take 450 years to degrade. Other commonplace items such as straws can take up to 200 years to degrade and foam plastic cups can take 50 years.

However, it is worth noting that in the deepest parts of the ocean, plastic can last up to thousand of years due to the absence of sunlight, lesser oxidation and lack of other drivers of plastic degradation.


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4. Why is plastic in the oceans a problem?


Plastic debris has been found floating on the sea surface, washing up on the most remote coastlines, melting out of Arctic sea ice, and sitting at the deepest point of the ocean floor. It’s everywhere.

As plastics continue to flood into our oceans, the list of marine species affected by plastic debris expands. Tens of thousands of individual marine organisms have been observed suffering from entanglement or ingestion of plastics permeating the marine environment—from zooplankton and fish, to sea turtles, marine mammals and seabirds- experts predict that 99% of seabird species will have ingested plastic by 2050, the result of which can be death.

When eaten by fish, some of the chemical-laden microplastics can work their way up the food chain and into the fish we eat. The impacts and consequences of plastic pollution are currently not well understood.


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5. Can the problem be solved with recycling or biodegradable plastics?


One of the most popular solutions to plastic pollution, which is recycling, simply isn’t enough. Only 9% of all the plastic waste ever generated has been recycled.

Current forecasts show that the expected strong increase in plastic production over the next years will overtake recycling by far, the consequence being more plastic in the ocean.

Recycling alone is not enough to solve the plastics emergency. To stop plastic from entering our oceans, we need to reduce the amount of plastic being produced. We must demand that companies reduce the amount of plastic they are putting into the supply chain and find other ways to package and deliver their products. Without immediate changes to the way we use and abuse plastics, the total amount of plastic waste created is expected to double by 2025.

So-called greener plastics that breakdown in the environment have been marketed as a sustainable alternative that could reduce the vast amount of plastic waste, however according to the UN Environment Programme, some of the biodegradable additives in plastic that would allow it to break down make it harder to recycle, and can be potentially harmful in the natural environment.

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6. How does plastic production contribute to the climate crisis?


Plastic contributes to greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of its lifecycle, from its production to its refining and the way it is managed as a waste product. Projections show that plastic makes 20% of the world’s oil production by 2050. But different to other products made from fossil fuels, like petrol, plastic is not taxed, making production and consumption very cheap.

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7. Are there laws against Single Use Plastics?


In the European Union, and European member states, there are many laws, regulations and directives regulating plastic items. The packaging and packaging waste directives are currently under review to boost recycling rates, microplastics are in the process of being regulated and in summer 2019, a new European Union Directive on single-use plastics will become legally binding, requiring all EU Member States to include bans or other provisions to reduce waste from items like plastic cutlery, plastic bottles and fishing gear into national law, mostly within two years.

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8. What is Oceana’s position?


Oceana Europe believes that EU countries should soon introduce legislation that goes further than required by the single-use plastics directive, in order to achieve a real reduction in plastic waste quickly. To stop plastic from entering our oceans, we must reduce the amount of single-use plastic being produced at the source.

We are also demanding that companies reduce the amount of plastic they produce and put into the supply chain and instead find alternative ways to package and deliver their products. Consumers today want to go plastic-free, but it is an almost impossible task. Companies, regions and cities in Europe need to provide consumers with more plastic free choices and give consumers who want to make lifestyle changes the opportunity to do so.

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9. What can I do to help solve the problem?


As a consumer you can do a great deal to help make sure less plastic ends up in the oceans. Make your voice heard, and lead by example. You can help to reverse the trend to ever growing single-use plastic production by buying plastic-free products or other sustainable alternatives. You can also actively request from every single company that they develop product ranges that are entirely plastic free.

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