How Much Plastics Enters The Ocean?
To understand the magnitude of input of plastics to the natural environment and the world’s oceans, we must understand various elements of the plastic production, distribution and waste management chain. This is crucial, not only in understanding the scale of the problem but in implementing the most effective interventions for reduction.
The data and visualizations which follow in this entry provide this overview step-by-step. This overview is summarized in the figure.
Here we see that in 2010:
global primary production of plastic was 270 million tonnes;
global plastic waste was 275 million tonnes – it did exceed annual primary production through wastage of plastic from previous years;
plastic waste generated in coastal regions is most at risk of entering the oceans; in 2010 coastal plastic waste – generated within 50 kilometres of the coastline – amounted to 99.5 million tonnes;
only plastic waste which is improperly managed (mismanaged) is at significant risk of leakage to the environment; in 2010 this amounted to 31.9 million tonnes;
of this, 8 million tonnes – 3% of global annual plastics waste – entered the ocean (through multiple outlets, including rivers);
Plastics in the oceans’ surface waters is several orders of magnitude lower than annual ocean plastic inputs. This discrepancy is known as the ‘missing plastic problem’ and is discussed here.
The amount of plastic in surface waters is not very well known: estimates range from 10,000s to 100,000s tonnes.