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The Growing Threat of Plastic in Marine Litter


sea turtle
A sea turtle all wound up. The United Nations Environment Program reports that plastic is increasingly present in the world’s oceans and that microbead plastics, found in toothpastes and other gels, are also being released problematically into bodies of water. 

Two summers ago, Bill Grafton, the president emeritus of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, and commercial fishermen lifted a 5,000-pound net ball from coastal waters off Provincetown, Massachusetts. The knot of plastic and rope was so heavy that his crew enlisted a construction loader for help.

At the time, Grafton was coordinating a derelict-fishing-gear retrieval project called Stellwagen Sweep. The project eventually removed 50,000 pounds of debris from the Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays, underscoring for Grafton the threats facing marine environments.

“The loss at sea of household and marine products is a real problem because of the increased presence of plastic that is resilient and breaks down into ever smaller particles, eventually being consumed by marine wildlife,” Grafton said in an interview. “Marine litter also becomes entangled in fishing gear.”

Recently, Grafton’s concerns were echoed by the United Nations Environment Program, which published the 11th edition of its “Year Book,” detailing 10 environmental issues that have emerged in the last decade. The report cites plastic pollution in the world’s oceans as one of the growing problems and microplastics as especially worrisome.

Though no official statistics quantify marine litter worldwide, the UN cites studies estimating that nearly eight million synthetic items enter oceans and seas every day, and 13,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating on every square kilometer of ocean surface.

Plastic waste is known to have severe environmental impacts, particularly when ingested by marine life. Reports abound of entanglements of animals such as turtles, dolphins and whales. The UN Environment Program also notes concerns relating to chemical contamination and the spread of invasive species by plastic fragments.

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Since the Year Book last looked at ocean plastic waste in 2011, fears have mounted that microplastics (particles up to five millimeters in diameter) represent an underappreciated problem. The report explains that microbeads found in toothpaste, gels and facial cleaners are often not filtered out during sewage treatment and are released into rivers, lakes and oceans. Having entered the marine environment, microplastics can facilitate the growth and transport of microbes and pathogens, which are known to thrive on the material.

Achim Steiner, the executive director of the UN Environment Program, said that scientists have recently found tiny pieces of plastic trapped in sea ice. Experts fear that these plastics could end up as contaminants in our food. The Year Book also reports that microplastics are harmful when ingested by large marine organisms, including the endangered northern right whale.

Dr. James Mead, curator emeritus of marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., has spent 45 years studying marine biology and maintains an extensive database of stranded whales. “My database lists 43 samples of whales and dolphins that have had plastic in their stomachs,” Dr. Mead said in an interview. “In several cases, the plastic caused blockages that probably led to the death of the whale.”

Despite this evidence, plastics remain integral to our everyday lives and to the global economy. In the United States alone, the plastics industry exported $58.5 billion dollars’ worth of goods in 2012 and employed nearly one million workers.

Yet the hidden costs of poor plastic management may be greater than was once thought.

Valuing Plastic,” a UN Environment Program-supported report, makes the business case for improving plastic management. The report finds that the overall financial impact resulting from pollution of the marine environment and air pollution caused by plastic incineration costs the consumer-goods sector around $75 billion each year. The report notes that the costs directly related to the marine environment are well over the UN’s estimate of $13 billion dollars a year. In contrast, “Valuing Plastic” finds that smart management of plastic saves companies $4 billion each year.

The Year Book and “Valuing Plastic,” both released in June at the UN Environment Program’s first high-level assembly, held in Nairobi, call on companies and consumers to reduce their plastic waste. Important recommendations include improving metrics to quantify plastic use, setting plastic reduction targets and increasing the efficiency of recycling programs. The UN agency emphasizes that increasing consumer awareness is also relevant, noting initiatives such as the Plastic Disclosure Project and the UN’s Global Partnership on Marine Litter in helping to raise the profile of the issue.

Above all, experts agree that plastic must be managed appropriately before it reaches marine ecosystems. “The only way to minimize the threat is to cut off plastics at the source and to ‘reduce, resuse, recyle,’ ” Dr. Mead explained.

The plastics economy is such that the hidden costs of mismanagement and poor disposal practices are often noticed only by those who regularly interact with marine environments, such as Bill Grafton in Massachusetts and Dr. Mead. Though a world without plastics is hard to imagine, the UN Year Book makes the case that the effect of plastic waste cannot be ignored.


Jacob S. Glass is the chief editor and a research associate for a leading government affairs firm in Washington, D.C. He was previously a staff writer for the environmental change and security program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Glass is an RJ Fellows Honors Program graduate of Muhlenberg College, where he also won the presidential award for post-graduate promise. In addition, he is a Truman scholar and a Morris K. Udall scholar, among other fellowships.

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