The Story of Ocean Pollution: Most Plastic in Our Oceans Can Be Traced Back to Just 10 Rivers

The Story of Ocean Pollution: Most Plastic in Our Oceans Can Be Traced Back to Just 10 Rivers

Recently when reports started circulating about a young male sperm whale discovered dead off the coast of Spain with 30 kilograms (64 pounds) of garbage in its digestive system, there were fresh calls from marine biologists, ocean activists and conservationists for more to be done about plastic consumption and ocean pollution.

This isn’t the first time a marine animal has consumed plastic rubbish and it certainly won’t be the last. A study found that 693 animal species have encountered debris, with nearly 400 involving entanglement and ingestion.

It’s not just animals consuming plastic – humans are too. A study of tap water samples from over a dozen countries on five continents found that 83 percent were contaminated with invisible plastic fibres.

Why is there so much plastic finding its way into our oceans? 

To answer this question, we need to look more closely at the amount of plastic produced, consumed and discarded.

Most Plastic in Our Oceans Can Be Traced Back to Just 10 Rivers

Plastic production

According to a study published in Science Advances as at 2015, there have been 8.3 billion tons of virgin plastic produced. Researchers estimated that of that, 6.3 billion had turned into plastic waste, with just nine percent recycled and 12 percent incinerated. A whopping 79 percent has made its way into landfills or the natural environment.

With a million plastic bottles produced every minute, it is clear that one cannot solve the plastic problem with recycling, incinerating or binning. The general consensus is that we must deal with it at the source and reduce overall human demand for plastic. Governments around the world are implementing policies to ban plastic bags as a way to combat the issue.

Plastic polluters

A study on plastic waste from land into the ocean led by Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia, compiled a list of the world’s 20 worst plastic polluters. According to the team of American and Australian researchers, the five worst ocean polluters are in Asia, with China topping the list, and Indonesia in second place.

 

World's worst ocean plastic polluters
Credit: Climate Desk

Related Post: The Complications of Ocean Politics, Policy and Governance: Who is Steering the Ship?

In another study, researchers found that between 88-95 percent of the plastic debris found in our oceans isn’t dumped there directly but makes its way there through just 10 rivers: The Yangtze, the Indus, Yellow River, Hai River, the Nile, the Ganges, Pearl River, Amur River, the Niger, and the Mekong (in that order).

Eight of the rivers responsible for carrying plastic trash into our oceans are located in Asia.

Solving the ocean pollution problem

Research findings show that Asia is at the heart of the problem, with its rivers supporting hundreds of millions of people. If you’ve ever travelled to Asia, particularly to places like Bali or India, you’ll likely have encountered plastic pollution and you may also have an understanding of the root causes.
They are:
  • inadequate waste collection and management
  • poor recycling infrastructure,
  • lack of clean drinking water which forces a reliance on bottled water; and
  • poverty.

Picking up trash and collecting ocean rubbish is noble, and we must continue our global efforts, but these activities alone won’t solve the problem. If we really want to make some serious headway with ocean pollution, we will need to tackle the plastic problem in these countries particularly, pressuring their governments and corporations to act on these issues. On a personal level, committing to a zero waste lifestyle and saying no to single-use disposable plastic, and further educating and raising public awareness of the severity of the issue is something we can all do.

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