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Environmental Issues: Plastics in the Ocean


In the twenty-first century, planet earth’s environment is in danger of being over-polluted due to the unprecedented large-scale production of plastics and the associated poor disposal practices. Plastics are non-biodegradable, which means when poorly disposed of, they lead to widespread pollution causing harm to human health and the environment through marine pollution, chemical contamination, effects on biodiversity, and climate change. Plastics are used in almost all sectors including packaging, agriculture, automotive industry, household appliances, furniture, toys, shoes, and electronic goods among many other areas. As such, the demand for these materials has increased significantly over the years.

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However, the current plastic disposal mechanisms are inefficient and unsustainable. Consequently, the majority of plastic waste ends up in the oceans and seas around the globe. Interestingly, even with the pervasive nature of marine plastic pollution, there lacks an elaborate agreement on how this problem should be addressed in terms of international governance. Additionally, the current linear economic model that is widely used in the manufacture and use of plastics is unsustainable because it encourages the disposal of products immediately after they have been used without reusing or recycling. Nevertheless, some strategies, such as the adoption of the circular economy could be used to offer a long-term and sustainable solution to this problem.

The first scientific report on the issue of plastic marine pollution was produced in the 1970s. According to Barra and Leonard (2018), by 2015, the annual output of the production of plastics was 322 million metric tonnes – a twenty-fold increment between 1964 and 2015. By 2035, the production of plastics is expected to double and quadruple by 2050 (Barra & Leonard 2018). As mentioned earlier, the majority of these plastic materials will end up in oceans and seas, thus compounding the problem of marine pollution. Currently, oceans and seas are estimated to have over 150 million metric tonnes, which account for “more than 5 trillion micro (less than 5 mm) and macro-plastic particles” and this figure is projected to reach over 450 million metric tonnes by 2025 (Barra & Leonard 2018, p. 3). One of the important aspects to explore at this point is how plastics enter the oceans.

Plastics debris enters the marine environment through various pathways from production to disposal. According to Law (2017), the first point of entry is through spillage of industrial resin pellets that are commonly used in the manufacture of plastics. Such pellets could enter waterways directly or be introduced through wastewater (van Franeker & Law 2015). The second entry point is through improper disposal mechanisms including littering, uncontained landfills, and open dumping. Additionally, micro-beads made from plastic and used in different ways, such as abrasives in personal care products and synthetic clothing, normally enter household water, which might ultimately enter the oceans (Andrady 2015). Another unintended entry of plastic materials into oceans occurs through catastrophic events like floods, tsunamis, and hurricanes, which carry large amounts of plastic debris into major water bodies.

However, according to Jambeck et al. (2015), the poor management and disposal of plastic waste generated on land is the leading contributor to plastics marine pollution. This paper discusses the problem of plastics in oceans and seas, and it explores how the circular economy could be deployed as a sustainable solution. An environmental issue may be described as the harmful effects on the environment caused by human activities and according to Jambeck et al. (2015), plastics in oceans are one of the major environmental problems in modern times. Law (2017) and Haward (2018) also support this view.

Effects of Plastics on the Marine Ecosystem

As a critique, this investigation considers whether the term “circular economy” is simply a concept or is a practice: crucial to this is the question regarding standardization and acceptance by all production and manufacturing companies leading by example. However, it is important to place this problem in context by understanding the effects of plastics on the oceans. The marine ecosystem is robust, and it is mainly made of animals, fish, plants, and the coral reef. Therefore, the potential impacts of plastics on the marine ecosystem include

Entanglement by debris leading to injury, trapping, or drowning; ingestion of debris causing physical injury, obstruction of the gut, or accumulation of indigestible material in the gut; debris damaging or clogging gills; floating debris acting as a substrate for long-distance transport of rafting organisms; debris on the seafloor providing shelter for small animals; floating or seafloor debris attracting fish or other marine life; floating debris as a navigational hazard, interfering with ship propellers, or clogging water intake pipes; and seafloor debris interacting with marine equipment, such as fishing gear (Law 2017, p. 215).

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These effects could be classified into three broad categories – entanglement, ingestion, and interaction. Entanglement occurs when plastic debris encircles, constricts, or entraps marine animals including the trapping of animals by derelict fishing gear. On the other hand, ingestion occurs when marine animals, ranging from large mammals to planktonic invertebrates swallow plastics (directly or indirectly – through prey that has ingested such materials) (Ryan 2015; Kiessling, Gutow, & Thiel 2015). Finally, the interaction involves any form of contact with plastic debris that does not entail entanglement. Such contact may include blanketing or collision, obstruction, providing shelter, or being a substrate for growth, especially for marine plants.

In most cases, entanglement involves netting and plastic ropes among other common parts of derelict fishing gear. Kuhn, Bravo Rebolledo, and van Franeker (2015) posit that entanglement has now been “reported for 344 species, including 100% of marine turtles, 67% of seals, 31% of whales, and 25% of seabirds, as well as 89 species of fish and 92 species of invertebrates” (p. 77). The common hazards associated with entanglement include causing bodily harm, growth interference, deformations, and restricted movements, which affect feeding, swimming, and the ability to evade predators. The majority of these hazards lead to the death of the affected animals through starvation, drowning, and predation (Gall & Thompson 2015; Cole et al. 2016). According to Wilcox, van Sebille, and Hardesty (2015), plastic ingestion has now been “documented for 233 marine species, including 100% of marine turtles, 36% of seals, 59% of whales, and 59% of seabirds, as well as 92 species of fish and 6 species of invertebrates” (p. 11891). Ingestion depends on the size of the debris and that of the swallowing organism. For instance, oysters and mussels are likely to ingest small plastic fibers and other related particles, while sperm whales may swallow materials such as large debris items.

Plastic debris may obstruct the gut together with a reduced stomach storage capacity of the affected animals. Death may occur due to internal lacerations, perforated gut, and gastric rupture among other associated effects. Ingested materials may also harm animals through chemical contamination due to additives included in the manufacture of plastics. Such additives are normally persistent, bio-accumulative, and toxic (PBT) (Rochman 2015). The third impact of plastics on the marine ecosystem is through interaction, which occurs in various ways. For instance, when the fishing gear meets sessile invertebrates, it causes tissue breakage or abrasion (Green et al. 2015). In this case, death may occur due to suffocation (reduced oxygen exchange) among other adverse effects. Floating plastic debris affects ecological assemblages thus disrupting the marine ecosystem in various ways. Therefore, given the extensive nature of damage that plastics cause to the marine ecosystem, there is an urgent need to address this problem from a sustainable and long-term perspective. Besides, more studies are needed to establish the extent of damage by plastics on the marine environment using reliable tools. One of the available ways of addressing this problem is the use of the circular economy.

Mitigation through the Circular Economy

The production and use of plastics rely heavily on the linear economic model. In this case, raw materials are used to make a certain product, which is thrown away after its use. In other words, it is a ‘make, use, and dispose of’ economic model. For instance, when plastic materials are used to make water bottles, such products are disposed of after the water has been used. This approach means that plastic materials will continue to enter the environment and oceans at unprecedented rates especially due to the ever-increasing global population. Consequently, there is an urgent need to think of a different way of producing and disposing of plastics.

The circular economy model offers a better alternative to the current linear model when dealing with this problem of plastics in oceans. Barra and Leonard (2018) indicate that the circular economy “aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, to extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, and to recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their service life” (p. 9). This economic model promotes the production, use, and disposal of plastics in a restorative and regenerative approach. It allows the maintenance of the highest utility of the value of materials, resources, and products in an economy for as long as possible (Kalmykova, Sadagopan & Rosado 2018). Additionally, waste generation is minimized by designing out hazardous materials and other wastes. The circular economy creates a “value circle” that embraces systems thinking and innovation to allow the continuous flow of materials from the source, through manufacturers to consumers.

Circular Economy in the Management of Plastics

As noted earlier, the greatest source of plastics in the oceans is waste generated on land through different activities. Therefore, creating an elaborate system through which plastic usage could be managed effectively means that the oceans will not receive huge amounts of debris. In the management of plastics, the circular economy seeks to “improve the economic viability of recycling and reuse of plastics; halt the leakage of plastics into the environment, especially waterways and oceans; and decouple plastics production from fossil-fuel feedstocks, while embracing renewable feedstocks” (p. 9). The following section elaborates how these goals could be achieved using different examples.

The first aspect of the circular economy in the management of plastics is to make such materials and products from alternative feedstocks. Currently, the majority of plastics are made from fossil fuel feedstocks, which are non-biodegradable, and thus they persist in the environment. Under the circular economy model, alternative feedstocks such as benign and biodegradable materials could be used (Mrowiec 2018). The resultant materials made from these feedstocks would decompose easily without lingering in the environment. As such, plastics will be eliminated from circulation before they can enter the marine ecosystem and cause extensive damage as discussed earlier in this paper.

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Plastic waste could also be used as a resource through recycling and reusing. For instance, plastic waste could be recovered and be remanufactured into new products such as bricks, composites, furniture, clothes, and footwear on top of being used in road construction. Additionally, plastic waste could be used in the manufacture of liquid fuel in a waste-to-energy cycle (Brink et al. 2018). The underlying idea is to recycle and reuse thus making deriving utility from the plastics before being disposed of appropriately (Calleja 2019). Reusing will reduce the need to make plastic products in large volumes, which means the oceans would receive less waste from land usage.

Under the circular economy, the processes of plastics and associated products could be redesigned to ensure reusability, waste prevention, and longevity. This goal could be achieved by integrating after-use, recovery, and pollution prevention mechanisms into the product design from the outset. This approach requires the adoption of a life-cycle model with cleaner production to discourage “single and other avoidable plastics use; as well as designing products for appropriate lifetimes, extended use, ease of separation, repair, upgrade and recycling; eliminating toxic substances; and preventing the release of micro-plastics into the environment by redesigning products” (Barra & Leonard 2018, p. 11). For instance, tires and clothes could be designed to reduce tear and wear, thus improving longevity. Timberland Company could adopt this strategy in the manufacture of its products. Refillable plastic containers could also be used in different areas to eliminate single-use bottles. As such, all manufacturing companies would lead by example by adopting the sustainable production of plastics.

Another circular economy strategy would be to create awareness to businesses and consumers on the need to avoid non-essential plastic usage and reconsider the throwaway culture by encouraging reuse and recycling. For instance, companies like Johnson Controls could recycle their batteries. Pharrell Williams could up-cycle ocean trash into clothing and all companies could adopt corporate social responsibility focusing on profit, people, and planet (3 P’s – the triple bottom line). Industrial symbiosis could be initiated whereby waste materials from one industry are used as raw materials in other sectors (Marconi et al. 2018). Sustainable business models could also be adapted to promote the leasing or sharing of plastic materials. Robust information platforms would play an important role in tracking the movement of plastic products within an economy and allow cross-value chain dialogue on the sustainable management of plastic materials (Drzyzga & Prieto 2018). Finally, policy instruments for collaborative international governance of the production and use of plastics would mitigate the negative effects associated with unsustainable practices in the making of plastic materials (Haward 2018). Without proper and stringent policy and fiscal structures, manufacturers will continue to use unsustainable production methods, and thus the problem of plastic marine pollution would remain unsolved.


As conclusive thoughts, this essay has shown that the production and usage of plastics have grown unprecedentedly over the past few decades especially in the wake of the global population explosion that has been witnessed from the mid-twentieth-century. Plastics are cheap to make, and thus their demand has been unparalleled, which explains why this material is now being used in almost every sector. However, plastics are non-biodegradable, and thus they persist in the environment for causing widespread pollution. The amount of plastic debris that ends up in the oceans has been increasing exponentially due to poor waste management on land. The presence of plastics in the marine ecosystem has devastating effects on animal and plant lives. Through entanglement, ingestion, and interaction, ecological assemblages are interfered with, which ultimately affects the marine ecology adversely. Besides, the current linear economic model that is used in the production of plastics is not sustainable. This aspect underscores the need to embrace the circular economic model whereby plastic materials and resources are used for as long as possible before being disposed of for maximum derivation of utility and value.

The circular economy encourages recycling and reuse and this approach could be used effectively to mitigate the problem of plastic marine pollution in the long term. Under the circular economy, different approaches are utilized to ensure that plastic products are used for the longest time possible to avoid unnecessary production and poor disposal methods. Products could be designed in a way that encourages reuse and recycling. Another approach would be to encourage businesses and consumers to avoid non-essential usage of plastic products. Using alternative feedstocks, such as biodegradable materials, would also ensure that plastics are eliminated from the cycle through decomposition before they can enter the ocean. Combining these approaches under the circular economy makes it a better alternative as compared to the current linear economic model.

Reference List

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Calleja, D 2019, ‘Why the “new plastics economy” must be a circular economy’, Field Actions Science Reports, vol. 19, pp. 22-27.

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