What is Ocean Pollution?
Ocean pollution is a complex mixture made up of mercury, plastic waste, manufactured chemicals, petroleum wastes, agricultural runoff, and biological threats, like harmful algal blooms. People are exposed to these toxins mainly by eating contaminated seafood.
More than 80% arises from land-based sources and it reaches the oceans through rivers, runoff, deposition from the atmosphere, where airborne pollutants are washed into the ocean by rain and snow and direct dumpings, such as pollution from wastewater treatment plants and discarded waste.
Ocean pollution is heaviest near the coasts and most highly concentrated along the coastlines of low-income and middle-income countries.
Ocean pollution can also be found far beyond national jurisdictions in the open oceans, the deepest oceanic trenches, and on the shores of remote islands. Ocean pollution knows no borders.
Where does pollution come from?
The majority of pollutants that make their way into the ocean come from human activities along the coastlines and far inland. One of the biggest sources of pollution is nonpoint source pollution, which occurs as a result of runoff.
Nonpoint source pollution can come from many sources, like septic tanks, vehicles, farms, livestock ranches, and timber harvest areas. Pollution that comes from a single source, like an oil or chemical spill, is known as point source pollution.
Point source pollution events often have large impacts, but fortunately, they occur less often. Discharge from faulty or damaged factories or water treatment systems is also considered point source pollution.
Nutrients and algal blooms: Too much of a good thing?
Sometimes it is not the type of material, but its concentration that determines whether a substance is a pollutant. For example, the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus are essential elements for plant growth. However, if they are too abundant in a body of water, they can stimulate an overgrowth of algae, triggering an event called an algal bloom.
Harmful algal blooms (HABs), also known as “red tides,” grow rapidly and produce toxic effects that can affect marine life and sometimes even humans. Excess nutrients entering a body of water, either through natural or human activities, can also result in hypoxia or dead zones.
When large amounts of algae sink and decompose in the water, the decomposition process consumes oxygen and depletes the supply available to healthy marine life. Many of the marine species that live in these areas either die or, if they are mobile (such as fish), leave the area.
Marine debris is a persistent pollution problem that reaches throughout the entire ocean and Great Lakes. Our ocean and waterways are polluted with a wide variety of marine debris, ranging from tiny microplastics, smaller than 5 mm, to derelict fishing gear and abandoned vessels.
Worldwide, hundreds of marine species have been negatively impacted by marine debris, which can harm or kill an animal when it is ingested or they become entangled and can threaten the habitats they depend on. Marine debris can also interfere with navigation safety and potentially pose a threat to human health.
All marine debris comes from people with a majority of it originating on land and entering the ocean and Great Lakes through littering, poor waste management practices, stormwater discharge, and extreme natural events such as tsunamis and hurricanes.
Some debris, such as derelict fishing gear, can also come from ocean-based sources. This lost or abandoned gear is a major problem because it can continue to capture and kill wildlife, damage sensitive habitats, and even compete with and damage active fishing gear.
Garbage patches: What and where are they?
Garbage patches are large areas of the ocean where trash, fishing gear, and other marine debris collect. The term “garbage patch” is a misleading nickname, making many believe that garbage patches are “islands of trash” that are visible from afar. These areas are actually made up of debris ranging in size, from microplastics to large bundles of derelict fishing gear.
These patches are formed by large, rotating ocean currents called gyres that pull debris into one location, often to the gyre’s center. There are five gyres in the ocean: one in the Indian Ocean, two in the Atlantic Ocean, and two in the Pacific Ocean.
Garbage patches of varying sizes are located in each gyre. Due to winds and currents, garbage patches are constantly changing size and shape. The debris making up the garbage patches can be found from the surface of the ocean all the way to the ocean floor.
Fact About The Ocean Pollution
- Oil spills aren’t the big(gest) problem: Oil spills make up only 12 percent of the oil in our oceans. Three times as much oil is carried to the sea via drains from our roads, rivers, and drainpipes. if you don’t know about oil spills check our article: what is oil Spills?
- More plastic than fish: Eight million tons: that’s how much plastic we throw into the oceans every year. That’s roughly 17.6 billion pounds, or the equivalent of nearly 57,000 blue whales a year. By 2050, ocean plastic will outweigh all fish in the ocean.
- 5 garbage patches: There is so much junk at sea that the debris has created huge patches of rubbish. There are five of them around the world, and the largest, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, contains an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of garbage and covers an area twice the size of Texas.
- Plastic poses a double danger: Ocean trash can be broken into smaller pieces known as microplastics by exposure to sunlight and the impact of waves. Then it can get into the food chain. When it eventually degrades (which for most plastics takes 400 years), the process releases chemicals that further contaminate the ocean.
- China, Indonesia top the trash tally: More plastic in the ocean comes from China and Indonesia than anywhere else combined. They make up a third of plastic pollution. In fact, 80 percent of plastic pollution comes from just 20 countries, including the United States.
- Pollution is in fashion (literally): With every load of laundry, more than 700,000 synthetic microfibres are washed into our waterways. In contrast to natural materials such as cotton or wool, these plasticized fibers do not decompose. One study showed that synthetic microfibers make up 85 percent of all beach trash.
- Most ocean trash sits on the bottom: As unsightly as marine pollution is, what we can’t see can be worse: 70 percent of marine trash actually sinks to the ocean floor, which means we can probably never get rid of it.
- Even nutrients can become harmful: When agricultural nutrients such as nitrogen are dumped at sea in large quantities, they can stimulate the explosive growth of algae. As the algae decompose, oxygen is consumed in the surrounding waters, creating a huge dead zone that can lead to the mass deaths of fish and other marine life.
- The number of dead zones is growing: In 2004, the scientists counted 146 hypoxic zones (areas with such a low oxygen concentration that animal life suffocates and dies) in the world’s oceans. By 2008, that number rose to 405. In 2017, oceanographers discovered a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that was almost the size of New Jersey, the largest dead zone ever measured.
- The oceans are losing mussel mass: One effect of greenhouse gas emissions is increased ocean acidification, making it harder for clams like clams, clams, and oysters to form clams, reducing their chances of survival, disrupting the food chain, and affecting the multi-billion dollar mussel industry.
- We’re making a racket down there: Noise pollution from shipping and military activities can cause cellular damage to a class of invertebrates, which include jellyfish and anemones. These animals are an important source of food for tuna, sharks, sea turtles, and other creatures.
Causes of Ocean Pollution
The causes of ocean pollution are many. Of all facts there is one constant: most of the pollution in our oceans begins on land and is human-caused. Here are some of the main causes of marine pollution:
1. Nonpoint source pollution (Runoff)
Pollution from nonpoint sources comes from different locations and sources. The result is runoff that occurs when rain or snow carries pollutants from the ground into the ocean. For example, after a violent rainstorm, water spills from roads into the ocean and takes oil from cars onto the roads.
2. Intentional discharge
Manufacturing facilities in some regions of the world release toxic waste, including mercury, into the ocean. While wastewater is purposely dumped into the sea, it also contributes to ocean pollution and plastic products. According to the Ocean Conservancy, eight million tons of plastic enter our oceans every year.
3. Oil spills
Ships and platforms release large amounts of oil every year. However, oil isn’t the only pollutant coming from ships, which can also dispose of fuel, plastic, and human waste. Crude oil is difficult to purify. It’s also poisonous, asphyxiating, and devastating to marine life. Crates lost in storms, accidents and other emergencies also pollute the ocean.
Ships also cause noise nuisance and disrupt the balance of life for marine animals such as dolphins and whales that use echolocation.
Read more about: What is oil Spills?
4. Atmospheric pollutants
Different types of pollutants can get into the water through the rain. A particular threat is carbon dioxide, which has accumulated with climate change. The oceans absorb the excess and become more acidic. This was particularly problematic for calcium carbonate structures like corals, which cannot regenerate or regrow.
Around a million species depend on thriving coral habitats. In addition, the excess CO2 can dissolve the shells of various marine animals.
5. Ocean mining
Deep-sea ocean mining causes pollution and disruption at the lowest levels of the ocean. The ocean floor is a valuable source of gold, silver, copper, and zinc, but underground mining is a major source of pollution.
Sulfide deposits created when drilling these substances can have environmental impacts that are not fully understood. Material leaks and equipment corrosion only exacerbate the problem.
Effects of Ocean Pollution
Ocean pollution has many consequences that directly and indirectly affect marine life and humans. Here are some of the most common marine pollution effects:
1. Harmful to marine animals
Marine animals are frequent victims of ocean pollution. For example, oil spills displace and suffocate marine animals by penetrating their gills. If the oil gets into sea bird feathers, they may not be able to fly or feed their young. Animals that are not killed by crude oil can suffer from cancer and behavior changes and can no longer reproduce.
Marine animals also mistake small pieces of plastic for food, get caught in plastic bags and discarded fishing nets, or are strangled by them. Animals most susceptible to damage from plastic waste in the ocean include dolphins, fish, sharks, turtles, seabirds, and crabs.
2. Depletion of oxygen in seawater
Since excess deposits in the ocean slowly degrade over many years, oxygen is used, which results in less O2 in the ocean. Low oxygen levels in the ocean lead to the death of marine animals such as penguins, dolphins, whales, and sharks.
Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in seawater also cause oxygen starvation. If there is a severe lack of oxygen in one area of the ocean, it can become a dead zone where no marine life can survive.
3. A threat to human health
Pollutants in the ocean are returning to humans. Small organisms ingest toxins and are eaten by larger predators, much of which is seafood that we eventually eat. When the toxins from contaminated animals build up in human tissues, it can lead to long-term health conditions, cancer, and birth defects.
7 Ways To Reduce Ocean Plastic Pollution Today
One of the reasons plastic pollution is such a problem is because it doesn’t go away: “Plastics are forever.” Instead, plastic waste simply breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, so-called microplastics, the environmental impact of which is still being determined.
Everyone can do something to reduce the amount of plastic that goes into the ocean, and millions of people around the world are already taking steps to reduce their plastic use. Here are seven ways you can make a difference starting today.
Read More about: What is plastic pollution?
1. Reduce Your Use of Single-Use Plastics
Wherever you live, the easiest and most direct way to get started is to reduce your own consumption of single-use plastics. Single-use plastics include plastic bags, water bottles, straws, cups, utensils, chemical cleaning bags, removable containers, and any other plastic item that is used once and then thrown away.
The best way to do this is to a) reject unneeded single-use plastics (e.g., straws, plastic bags, removable utensils, removable containers) and b) buy and carry reusable versions of these products, which includes reusable grocery bags, Bags, bottles, utensils, coffee cups and garment bags for dry cleaning. And if you turn down plastic single-use items, help businesses by letting them know to offer alternatives.
2. Recycle Properly
This should go without saying, but if you are using single-use plastics (and others) that can be recycled, you must always recycle them. Currently, only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled. Recycling keeps plastics out of the ocean and reduces the amount of “new” plastic in circulation. It is also important that you check with your local recycling center to see what types of plastic they accept.
3. Participate In (or Organize) a Beach or River Cleanup
Help remove plastic from the ocean and prevent it from getting there in the first place by attending your local beach or waterway, or organizing remediation. This is one of the most direct and profitable ways to tackle plastic pollution in the oceans.
You can just go to the beach or the waterway alone or with friends or family and collect plastic waste, or you can join a local organization or international event like the International Coastal Cleanup to clean up.
4. Support Bans
Many communities around the world have bans on single-use plastic bags, take-out containers, and bottles. You can support the adoption of such guidelines in your community. Here is a list of resources for legislators looking to restrict the use of plastic bags.
5. Avoid Products Containing Microbeads
Tiny plastic particles called “microspheres” have become a growing source of plastic pollution in the oceans in recent years. Microspheres are found in some facial scrubs, toothpaste, and body washes and easily find their way into our oceans and waterways through our sewer systems and affect hundreds of marine species.
Avoid products that contain plastic microspheres by searching for “polyethylene” and “polypropylene” on the ingredient labels of your cosmetic products (a list of products with microspheres can be found here).
6. Spread the Word
Stay up to date on issues related to plastic pollution and make others aware of the problem. Tell your friends and family how they can be part of the solution, or throw a party for one of the many documentaries that focus on plastic pollution like A Plastic Ocean, Garbage Island: An Ocean Full of Plastic, Bag It, Addicted to plastic, plassified or garbage island.
7. Support Organizations Addressing Plastic Pollution
There are many non-profit organizations working in various ways to reduce and eliminate plastic pollution from the oceans, including the Oceanic Society, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5 Gyres, Algalita, the Plastic Soup Foundation, and others.
Read More about: What is plastic pollution?
These organizations rely on donations from people like you to continue their important work. Even small donations can make a big difference!