An Ocean of Plastic: Problems and Solutions

By Devon Stapleton

The Plastic Problem

There has been a scary metric spreading across many media platforms that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by the year 2050 (Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2016). Where is this plastic coming from and how do we stop the pervasive nature of this global issue? “Plastics,” is a very broad term that describes human made waste that persists in a marine environment (NOAA, 2008). Plastic is just one kind of marine debris, too. Marine debris could be as small as microscopic plastic that is not visible with the human eye to a sunken ship. But, the one thing that all marine debris have in common is their impact on the natural environment, and on many marine species. 

Marine debris comes from numerous different sources, such as mismanagement of landfill, littering on land where rain and winds can carry the debris into the ocean, and disposal at sea. A surprising but significant source is fishing boats that either deliberately or accidentally lose their fishing lines, hooks, and nets (Lebreton et al. 2018). This is a global issue, but is extremely prevalent in Hawaii because the islands are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, placed at the bottom of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Nearly 60% of the marine debris measured in a recent study was found to float because it is less dense than the saltwater (Lebreton et al. 2018). Oceanic currents and winds transport plastic marine debris to other parts of the ocean or back onto coastlines. The plastics can break down over time into smaller pieces depending on conditions like sunlight exposure and waves. Due to unique current systems there is a large amount of the marine debris in the ocean that accumulates in the Pacific between Hawaii and California, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Lebreton et al. 2018). These currents are also pushing significant amounts of marine debris to Hawaii’s coastlines and beaches.

Marine debris is not only polluting Hawaii’s iconic beaches, but it is impacting the local marine species such as Hawaiian monk seals, Hawaiian green sea turtles, spinner dolphins, humpback whales, seabirds, and other marine life in the region. Smaller species can mistake smaller broken down plastics as food and consume or filter feed it. Larger species will then consume many of these smaller species, which means plastic can move up the food chain. The seafood that we eat are top predators that have consumed plastics through this process, meaning we can consume those microscopic plastics as well (NOAA, 2020). The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program that recommends more sustainable seafood options. Plastic consumption is just one marine debris impact though. There is also the issue of marine debris entanglement, especially in fishing gear. This often occurs with the Hawaiian monk seals, Hawaiian green sea turtles, spinner dolphins, humpback whales in Hawaii, causing them to either be unable to swim, breathe, or other threats to survival. This can exhaust them and lessen or stop their abilities to eat food for survival. 

How can you help as an individual?

 While marine debris is a growing threat, there is a lot each individual person can do to help. The first way to combat marine debris from getting into the ocean is by limiting the amount of plastic that is used in our daily lives. The “zero waste movement” has been growing over the past 5 years, which encourages people to significantly lessen the amount of waste they produce.

  • The first step to reducing your waste is using what you already have. There are many new and exciting zero waste products that can now be purchased, but remember the most sustainable products are what you already own.
  • As you consider replacing items, look for plastic free alternatives. Each day there are new alternatives being made, like shampoo and conditioner bars that lather and clean the same, but do not come in plastic containers. There’s makeup in bamboo containers now, toothpaste tablets, and even reusable Q-tips. Many are familiar with reusable straws, but plastic straws are a actually a small contributor to the plastics that end up in the ocean (NOAA, 2020). When it’s an option saying no to single use plastics is ideal, but plastic utensils, ziplock bags, and take out bags can be reused multiple times. There are zero waste options like beeswax paper that replace plastic wrap, bamboo utensil kits that replace plastic utensils, and bamboo brushes and dish soap bars.
  • Vote with your dollar. You can support the changes you want to see by voting with your dollar. As these sustainable options become more popular they become cheaper and it encourages other companies to follow their lead.
  • Shop locally. You can also help by shopping local, which reduces carbon emissions. If that’s not an option, you can support companies that use low-waste packaging and carbon offset their shipments.
  • Advocate and participate. If you want to help in a more direct way, you can! Participating in organized or personal beach clean ups helps remove plastics out of the environment. As an HMAR volunteer, you can participate in community conservation measures and help make a difference. You can also talk to companies, big or small, and let them know that sustainable business practices are a priority for you as a consumer. Another option is to vote for climate leadership to make larger-scale changes in your community and country. The final large way to make change is through educating others on this issue and ways they can help.

Working towards reducing or eliminating plastics in the ocean is not about being perfect, it is about making small changes that can hopefully make a big difference. All of these small changes add up to a significant positive impact for our oceans and the marine animals we care about.

Work Cited:

  • Lebreton, L., et al. “Evidence That the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Rapidly Accumulating
    Plastic.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 22 Mar. 2018,   
  • Macarthur, Ellen. The New Plastic Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics & Catalysing Action, Ellen Macarthur Foundation, Jan. 2016
  • US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Ocean Pollution.” Ocean Pollution | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2020.   
  • US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “What Is Marine Debris?” NOAA’s National Ocean Service, 14 Nov. 2008.