Skip to main content

U.N. report: Our oceans are trashed with plastic

By Casey Tolan, for CNN
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 0918 GMT (1718 HKT)
A Chinese boy runs along the trash-strewn beach along the sea coast in Anquan village, which is in Hainan province, in 2011. A Chinese boy runs along the trash-strewn beach along the sea coast in Anquan village, which is in Hainan province, in 2011.
Ocean clogged by trash
  • Plastic waste in oceans is causing $13 billion of damage to marine ecosystems each year, new reports say
  • Microplastics smaller than 5 millimeters, which are common in consumer goods, are especially dangerous
  • The solution to the problem is increasing recycling and decreasing unneeded use of plastics

(CNN) -- A series of new reports are raising concerns about the damage plastic waste is doing to oceans -- harming marine animals, destroying sensitive ecosystems, and contaminating the fish we eat.

But experts say that the solution to the problem isn't in the ocean -- it's on land.

The United Nations Environment Programme, as well as the NGOs Global Ocean Commission and Plastic Disclosure Project, released reports on Monday ringing the alarm bell about the environmental impact of debris on marine life.

Plastic waste in oceans is causing $13 billion of damage each year, according to the UNEP report, and that figure could be much higher. Worldwide plastic production is projected to reach 33 billion tons by 2050, and plastic makes up 80% of litter on oceans and shorelines.

"Plastics undoubtedly play a crucial role in modern life, but the environmental impacts of the way we use them cannot be ignored," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in a press release.

Ten to 20 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, from litter, runoff from poorly managed landfills, and other sources. Once it's in the water, plastic does not degrade but instead breaks into smaller pieces and swirls in massive ocean gyres, creating soupy surfaces peppered with the material.

Penalty: 769 footballs found at sea
Ocean trash hampering search for MH370?
Turning ocean garbage into soap bottles
Island of garbage pollutes Pacific Ocean

Scientists are especially worried about the growing prevalence of tiny microplastics which are smaller than 5 millimeters. These include microbeads, which are used in toothpaste, gels, facial cleansers and other consumer goods. Microplastics aren't filtered by sewage treatment plants, and can be ingested by marine animals with deadly effect.

READ: Plastic micro beads to be removed from soap

Ocean debris isn't just an environmental issue -- it also complicated the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 earlier this year, as floating debris confused satellite images.

What can be done?

It's expensive and ineffective to clean up existing marine debris. Picking trash off beaches or sweeping it from the ocean surface "does nothing to fix the problem at the source," said Doug Woodring, the co-founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, the NGO behind the Plastic Disclosure Project.

"It's not just an ocean problem, it's a business and a municipal issue," Woodring said. "The ocean is just downstream of our activities. The real solution is upstream at the producer and user end."

Governments can help solve the problem by regulating the use of plastics and creating infrastructure to recycle them. For example, dozens of nations have banned plastic bags at supermarkets or restricted their use.

That's a "good start," said Ada Kong, a campaigner at Greenpeace. But they can go further, she said. "Governments should enforce laws to regulate the cosmetic manufactures to label the ingredients (of consumer goods), including all the microplastics."

The general public can also be conscious about their plastic footprint by simply purchasing goods without a lot of excess plastic packaging. People should also separate their plastic from other waste and recycle it, Woodring said.

From waste to resource

Companies that produce plastic goods have perhaps the biggest opportunity to make a difference, Woodring said. They can engage their customers with rebate or deposit programs, giving them incentives to bring back plastic for recycling.

"Everything from bottles to food packaging can be made from recycled plastic," Woodring said. "The technology is there today to reuse it."

(Plastic is) a valuable material, pound-for-pound worth more than steel, and we're just not capitalizing on it today.
Doug Woodring, the co-founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance

His organization is hosting a "Plasticity Forum" in New York City on Tuesday featuring presentations about how to creatively reuse plastic.

Plastic isn't just waste -- it's "a valuable material, pound-for-pound worth more than steel, and we're just not capitalizing on it today," Woodring said.

The new reports come on the eve of the first-ever United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, a forum for environmental ministers, scientists, and others to discuss strategies to combat climate change and other environmental problems. An ocean conference hosted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, D.C. last week also focused on marine pollution.

Perhaps the greatest sign of the problem is the rapidly-growing Great Pacific Trash Patch, a massive sheet of plastic and other debris that circles in a gyre across the ocean.

READ: Roughly 20 million tons of trash in Indian Ocean

WATCH: Boat made of plastic sails the Pacific

Intern Daojun Wu contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
Climate change
May 12, 2014 -- Updated 1513 GMT (2313 HKT)
President Obama announced a series of steps to boost energy efficiency and advance solar priorities in an effort to combat carbon pollution.
May 6, 2014 -- Updated 2109 GMT (0509 HKT)
Climate change isn't something in the far-off future: It's a potentially disastrous reality that's already starting to have effects that are expected to worsen, experts say.
May 7, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
A number of themes emerge from the National Climate Assessment -- benefits and harm to agricultural production and new realities for cooling and heating costs.
March 31, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tackling the effects of climate change could cost governments around the world more than $100 billion a year, a United Nations panel of experts said.
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0113 GMT (0913 HKT)
Tom Friedman says preparation for climate change is urgently needed and even the "nightmare" of preparation will help.
March 31, 2014 -- Updated 1415 GMT (2215 HKT)
"Nothing poses a bigger threat to our water, our livelihood and our quality of life than a warming climate."
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1836 GMT (0236 HKT)
Keeping global warming down to a level people can live with means cutting carbon emissions to "near zero" by the end of the century.
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0205 GMT (1005 HKT)
Filmmaker James Cameron's new series paints a dire picture of what's to come if climate change is ignored.
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Director James Cameron talks to CNN's Jake Tapper about his new documentary series "Years of Living Dangerously."
March 23, 2014 -- Updated 1530 GMT (2330 HKT)
It's a new record, but one scientists aren't thrilled about hitting.
March 31, 2014 -- Updated 1527 GMT (2327 HKT)
Your forecast for the next century: Hotter, drier and hungrier, and the chance to turn down the thermostat is slipping away.
March 31, 2014 -- Updated 2029 GMT (0429 HKT)
CNN's Max Foster speaks to Professor Richard Alley about the implications of the recent UN report on climate change.
April 30, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Very few Americans link global warming to infectious disease, but that could change.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2102 GMT (0502 HKT)
There is no debate. Climate change is real and it's endangering our world, Carol Costello writes.
March 31, 2014 -- Updated 0752 GMT (1552 HKT)
According to a new report from the United Nations, the time to diminish the effects of global warming is running out.
February 27, 2014 -- Updated 1407 GMT (2207 HKT)
In contrast to the slow pace of international negotiations to combat climate change, national legislation is advancing at a startling rate.
May 1, 2014 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
A view of downtown Los Angeles is seen on a smoggy afternoon on 2 November 2006.
Take a look outside your window. Chances are the air you'll see is far cleaner than it was decades ago.
April 3, 2014 -- Updated 1054 GMT (1854 HKT)
A picture shows the Rwenzori mountain range on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on March 8, 2014. At 5,109 metres (16,763 feet), Mount Stanley's jagged peak is the third highest mountain in Africa, topped only by Mount Kenya and Tanzania's iconic Kilimanjaro.
The glaciers that have for centuries captured imaginations will soon be history.