How Much Plastic is in the Ocean?

Written by Ollie Wilkinson

the scores on the ocean floors

Plastic. Ocean.

Two words that just should not go together. And yet, we’re always hearing about how much plastic is in the ocean. So, what gives?

How are drinks bottles, food wrappers and straws slipping into our waters? And what can we do to stop it from happening?
Take a deep dive into the shocking ocean plastic statistics plaguing our planet and learn just how much plastic is in the ocean.

Quick Facts and Stats

  • – The ocean is now home to over five trillion pieces of plastic and 24 trillion microplastics.
  • – Some plastics take 500 years to decompose. That’s about 100 times as long as your average clownfish (poor Nemo!)
  • – 11 million tonnes of plastic leak into our oceans each year, with 8 million pieces entering each day.
  • – The ocean absorbs 22 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per day because of plastic waste.
  • – The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has a surface area of 1.6 million square kilometres. That’s 6.5 times larger than the whole of the UK.

How much plastic is in the ocean?

The sea has every right to be salty because experts estimate 5.25 TRILLION pieces of plastic debris are floating in the ocean. That’s over fifty times as many stars there are in our galaxy, and almost as many films as Bruce Willis’s IMDB page boasts!

The last significant study into the total amount of ocean plastic was conducted way back in 2014. Since then, it has only gotten worse.

Consider this a warning for the rest of the article, as some of these stats on just how much plastic is in the ocean will be the scariest thing you read since the Squid Game subtitles.

What about in 2019, 2020, and 2021?

Plastic is a growing beast that dwells both above and below the surface of the ocean. While there’s no significant data or study into the specific amount of ocean plastic from 2019 and 2020 (beyond the 5.25 trillion pieces estimated in 2014), scientists predict that it could nearly triple by 2040.

What types are found in there?

According to a Nature Sustainability report from 2021, the ten most commonly found items of marine litter are:

  • 1. Plastic bags (14.1%)
  • 2. Plastic bottles (11.9%)
  • 3. Food containers and cutlery (9.4%)
  • 4. Wrappers (9.1%)
  • 5. Synthetic rope (7.9%)
  • 6. Fishing items (7.6%)
  • 7. Plastic caps/lids (6.1%)
  • 8. Industrial packaging (3.4%)
  • 9. Glass bottles (3.4%)
  • 10. Drinks cans (3.2%)

You’re beginning to see why we deliver sustainably packaged groceries without carrier bags or plastic, aren’t you…

How much microplastic is in the ocean?

In 2021, Kyushu University conducted research into microplastics. These are the nasty little particles and debris created by the breakdown of industrial and consumer plastics.

Their global team of oceanographers discovered there are approximately 24 trillion pieces of microplastics in the ocean… and counting.

Our passion for delivering drinks in return-and-reuse glass bottles and infinitely recyclable cans ensures we avoid this terrible top ten, and instead create a circular loop system that kicks waste into touch.

How much plastic enters the ocean per year?

The world ran out of fingers to count the plastic in our ocean long ago, with waste wavering on our waves for many, many years.

Each year, 11 million tonnes of plastic leak into our ocean (UNEP). Hard to imagine, right?

Well, picture the heaviness of 100 THOUSAND blue whales. That’s the weight of how much plastic waste the human race is leaking into the ocean each year.

Alternatively, you can think of it as 42,307,692,307 Wilsons, if you’d prefer to equate it to Tom Hanks’s volleyball marine pollution in Cast Away.

How much plastic ends up in the ocean each day?

The weight of the issue is so massive that we can measure the amount of plastic entering the ocean on a day-by-day basis. And it’s still in the millions.

An infographic illustrating that 8 million pieces of plastic enter the ocean every day.

Every 24 hours, eight million more pieces of plastic end up in the ocean (OSPAR). And plastic pollution runs deep. So much so, that a carrier bag was recently found in the deepest part of the ocean – a 36,000-foot trench!

What percentage of all plastic ends up in the ocean?

According to our friends at Greenpeace, one in every ten pieces of plastic ends up in the ocean. Considering we produce 400 million tonnes of plastic waste per year, that’s a heck of a lotta pollution.

What happens to the rest of it?

An infographic showing how 25% of plastic waste ends up

The Big Plastic Count revealed that just 12% of plastic is recycled. The rest is: 

  • – Incinerated (46%) 
  • – Landfilled (25%) 
  • – Shipped overseas (17%)

So, you’ve got:

  • – Almost half of all plastic waste being burnt, releasing bucketloads of harmful pollutants into the air. 
  • – A quarter of plastic waste being buried, emitting even more nasty toxins into the air, soil and ocean. Lots of plastic is actually blown from landfills into the ocean.
  • – Almost a fifth of plastic waste being sent out to sea for another country to deal with it. 
  • – And just over one in every ten pieces of plastic being recycled. 

Not exactly the most tantalising menu of options, is it… 

How does plastic get into the ocean?

Good question! There are several reasons why so much pollutant plastic is slipping into our seas. And the good news is… they’re all very avoidable. Why? Because there’s one thing they each have in common: us.

an infographic showing that 11 million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean each year

Litter: gone with the wind

You’ll be blown away by how much litter the wind blows into the ocean. Some of it is swept for miles from huge landfill sites until it finds its gruesome home in the ocean, while other pieces have shorter journeys from busy coastlands. 

For every 100 metres on a UK beach, you’ll find 385 pieces of litter, according to the 2021 Great British Beach Clean. The bad news? 75% of this coastal waste is plastic or polystyrene – we’re looking at you, ketchup-dosed chippy cones!  

The good news? The amount of litter found in Great British Beach Cleans is down on the previous year, so we’re (very) slowly heading in the right direction. 

Up ship creek

Any of you who’ve seen Seaspiracy (if you haven’t, stop what you’re doing and head to Netflix right now!) will know that discarded fishing gear presents a big problem for the ocean. 

86% of large rubbish found in the North Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of items from fishing vessels (Nature). These include fishing nets, food packaging and items lost overboard.  

The International Maritime Organization now has a plan in place to prevent marine litter.

Dragged kicking and streaming

Up to 80% of plastic in the ocean is carried there by rivers and streams (Earth Watch), with common culprits including fizzy drink bottles, sweet wrappers and cigarette butts. The wind carries waste from land to water, where it flows and trickles into the big drink. 

For juicy deets on the worst litter offenders, check out the Dirty Dozen report

Going down the drain

While single-use packaging is a load of ****, there is no reason to flush it down the toilet. Wet wipes and cotton buds are too small to be filtered out by water waste plants, which means if they go down the bog, they end up in the sea.

Even washing your clothes could be creating microfibres and plastics that end up in the ocean!

Plastic’s impact on wildlife

two thirds of fish have ingested microplastics

Imagine waking up in a bed of used cotton buds or discovering a used cigarette butt in your sarnie. These are everyday problems for our wonderful sea creatures, who are suffering at the hands (or fins) of our waste. 

Two-thirds of the hundreds of fish species have been found to have ingested microplastics (The Conversation). 

Meanwhile, turtles are accidentally snacking on carrier bags, gulls are gulping down surface plastic, and many marine animals are being ensnared in single-use packaging and discarded fishing nets.

How much sea life is killed by plastic?

Plastic is choking, suffocating, poisoning, trapping and ultimately killing marine wildlife, with over a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals dying each year due to plastic waste (WWF and The Ocean Conference).  

Plastic is having a similarly drastic impact below the surface, causing the death of countless fish and at least 1,000 sea turtles per year (WWF).

How much plastic will be in the ocean by 2050?

Despite what dating websites will have you believe, there are not plenty more fish in the sea. Scientists predict plastic in the ocean could outweigh the number of fish by as early as 2050 (World Economic Forum). This is due to decreasing fish populations and increased plastic production plaguing our waters.

The impact of plastic pollution

Plastic pollution in the ocean doesn’t just endanger wildlife. It also adds to global warming and human health issues, with plastic waste toxins now leaking into food chains and our atmosphere.

What happens to plastic in the ocean?

Plastic takes hundreds of years to break down. Unlike home-compostable packaging or the members of One Direction, however, it’s no better off post-break-up.

Over hundreds of years, the bothersome bottles and wretched wrappers that aren’t ingested by wildlife eventually turn into microplastics, which are like an annoyingly awful spin-off series to an already hated TV show. The breakdown of plastic releases nasty greenhouse gases, which ultimately lead to climate change and rising global temperatures.

How to make waves in protecting our waters

Ocean plastic could get even more drastic, with scientists predicting it could triple by 2040 if we don’t do something soon about how much plastic is in the ocean. But there’s no need to drown your sorrows because it’s time to pool together and stem the tide of waste!

The best way to get rid of plastic pollution? Get rid of plastic! Our milkround doesn’t just help you swerve annoying shopping trips and running out of essentials. It also helps you avoid pollutant packaging, thanks to our wide range of plastic free groceries as part of our fresh milk delivery

More from our milkround

Get started with our milkround and take your first steps towards a reduced plastic life. It’s not as scary as it sounds, we promise. Once you’re done salivating over our sustainably packaged baked goods as part of our bakery delivery, dive headfirst into our blog for all the tips, tricks and cheat sheets you need to protect our waters:

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