Ocean Plastic: The Tale of a $24 Trillion Trash Can

Back in 1997 Aqua famously announced “plastic it’s fantastic” ... but in 2021 it’s more like TRASHtastic.

Every year, a staggering 350 million tonnes of plastic is produced globally. Hard to picture? How about 34,653 Eiffel Towers.

But this plastic isn’t stacked up in Paris. More than 5 trillion of these plastic pieces are in circulation – at sea - much of which has accumulated into literal garbage patches.

Found between Hawaii and California, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is the largest of these - covering an area larger than Greenland or 3.2 times the size of Texas - and growing.

Thanks to ocean currents and the density of much of this material, the GPGP has racked up a whopping 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing about 80,000 metric tons - the equivalent of 421 Blue Whales. In fact, there’s so much plastic in our oceans it’s predicted to outnumber fish by 2050.

Albeit a seemingly massive trash can for plastic, our oceans are one of our most valuable assets - estimated to be worth $24 trillion!!

They are critical for the social and economic welfare of all living creatures’, produce over half of the world’s oxygen and absorb 50 times more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere – not to mention the primary source for your sushi.


So why is plastic ending up in the ocean?

There are two leading causes of plastic pollution –

  1. The littering of fishing gear (like traps and nets) and trash directly into the ocean.


  1. Land-based trash that is either directly discharged into coastal waters or pushed into rivers (which all lead to our oceans) through storm-water runoff and winds.


Who is responsible?

Land based sources of marine plastic are greater in developing countries, where a lack of access to adequate waste management systems and the abundance of open-air dumps mean that trash is more easily transported into the sea.

A 2018 OECD report on improving plastics management showed that the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the USA) are responsible for only 2% of plastic pollution from land-based sources.

BUT – that’s no 4.0 – because they are still contributing to the problem!

These big, developed nations are exporting their waste to low and middle-income countries, which ... don’t have adequate waste management systems.

Despite ranking highest for mismanaging plastic waste, from 1992, China imported a cumulative 42% of the world’s plastic waste! But turns out waste contributes to air and water pollution and poses a public health risk. So, in 2018 China banned the importation of plastic waste.

It is now estimated that about 111 million metric tons of plastic waste (consisting of mainly single-use plastic food packaging) previously going to China will be displaced by 2030.

And where will it go… to other developing countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam – which do not have the necessary infrastructure to handle it.

But Cambodia is now saying no – and has announced they will return thousands of tonnes of plastic waste found in containers shipped from the US and Canada. Indonesia and Malaysia have also rightly announced plans to return trash to Australia and France, after inheriting their unwanted waste.


Where do we go from here?

To tackle plastic pollution at the source, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation set up a pact that encourages nations and organisations to;

  • Eliminate unnecessary and problematic plastic packaging through redesign and innovation.
  • Move from single-use to reuse where possible.
  • Ensure all plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable, or compostable.
  • Increase the reuse, collection, and recycling or composting of plastic packaging.
  • Increase the recycled content in plastic packaging.

As nations and large corporations adopt these changes; introduce stricter regulations and policies to minimise ocean littering we will see a reduction in plastic pollution at the source - but without adequate waste management systems, pollution from land-based sources will continue.


So, what can we do?

We can make a difference!

  • We can reduce our plastic consumption and altogether avoid single-use plastics.
  • Separate out our trash, composting, recycling and then only once we cannot reduce, reuse, repurpose dispose of our waste to landfill.
  • Support organisation that are cleaning the ocean
  • Drive change by voting with our dollars.
  • And Speak up against all forms of ocean littering!

Because there is no such thing as ‘away’.


Written By: Onis Emem






World Economic Forum. (2021). Retrieved 13 January 2021, from https://intelligence.weforum.org/topics/a1G0X0000057NQgUAM?tab=publications&utm_source=sfmc&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2738903_Si-WeeklyNewsletterV3-Live&utm_term=&utm_content=43498&utm_id=4293730b-9be8-433b-8945-027c60e727e0

Improving Plastics Management. (2018). Retrieved 13 January 2021, from https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/c5f7c448-en.pdf?expires=1610503518&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=DEEFB3FADC9900DDCF930B4EF4DF6CB4

Brooks, A. L., Wang, S., & Jambeck, J. R. (2018). The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade. Science Advances, 4(6), eaat0131. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aat0131

The Plastics Pact. (2021). Retrieved 13 January 2021, from https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/our-work/activities/new-plastics-economy/plastics-pact

Why some countries are shipping back plastic waste. (2021). Retrieved 13 January 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-48444874

Great Pacific Garbage Patch Growing Rapidly, Study Shows | Press Releases. (2021). Retrieved 13 January 2021, from https://theoceancleanup.com/press/press-releases/great-pacific-garbage-patch-growing-rapidly-study-shows/


  • Shivam Mehta

    Very informative article! The article did emphasised on the fact that we are not doing enough as an Intelligent Species to tackle the problem and a better effort from government and individuals both are needed to address this issue in a much efficient manner. Thank you so much for such an Informative article :D

  • Jonathan

    Shocking and informative at the same time. Thank you Onis. Teddy locks – I love your socks and please keep doing what you’re doing!!

  • Nom Ibe

    Highly informative

  • Wilson Uche Ibe

    Onis Emem, this is very informative. Great job. Your enumeration of the problems facing plastic waste management are consistent with findings and related observations around the world. The solutions you highlighted are practicable and realistic.
    This article may also be exposing a more sinister the intense collaborations behind-the-scenes of these so called developed nations and their more impoverished counterparts who, thanks to articles like this are now waking and standing up to these anomalous and parasitic relationships.
    If it is widely known that most of these plastic wastes end up in the oceans anyway, I hereby question the motive behind sending them to these countries in the first place.
    Let’s not forget that just like plastics, safe disposal of radioactive wastes is also a problem in today’s world. We still have not developed the technology yet to safely dispose of radioactive wastes. My worry is that I hope they have not started dumping the wastes the same way plastics are being treated today?

  • Goldson Emem

    This is a focused piece. The problem is clearly quantified and the solutions clarified.

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