Reasons for leakage
Secondary microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than 5mm that have been created as a larger piece of plastic breaks down over time from exposure to the sun, water and other elements. This means that preventing the presence of microplastics in the environment will rely on us preventing the littering of larger items.
Learn more about solutions to the prevention of secondary microplastics in the UK and in countries with high leakage.
How much plastic is in the ocean?
No one really knows for sure. It’s very difficult to count the fish or plastic in our oceans or make accurate predictions of what will happen in the future. See the BBC News website for an analysis.
Beach cleans are a great way to prevent plastic entering the oceans but research suggests they aren’t always reliable indicators of the litter issues in the UK. This is because:
They tend to focus on dirtier beaches and therefore may not be representative.
They may not be well controlled (areas of beaches may vary, which makes comparisons between years difficult).
The time of the day, year and tidal conditions can vary, therefore making comparisons impossible.
Campaigns tend to influence the items that volunteers focus on.
Source: SE Nelms et al. ‘Marine anthropogenic litter on British beaches: A 10-year nationwide assessment using citizen science data’ Science of the Total Environment. Volume 579, 1 February 2017, Pages 1399-1409.
Regardless of the exact numbers, it’s unacceptable to have plastic or any other litter in the environment – check out Solutions to see how you can help.
Learn more about the problems for Environment & Animals, Resources and Human Health.
Primary microplastics are pieces of plastic that are less than 5mm in size to before they enter the marine environment.
Primary microplastics are thought to account for around 10% of plastic in the ocean. Sources include tyres, road markings, building paints, fibres from clothes and others.
Microfibres: These are released from clothing. These are thought to account for 35% of primary microplastics. A variety of solutions are being investigated to collect these fibres or improve filtration.
Tyres & city dust: Tyres are thought to account for 28% of primary microplastics and city dust accounts for 24%.
Microbeads: These are sometimes used in cosmetics. They will now will be banned in 2018 in the UK. These are thought to account for 2% of primary microplastics.
Plastic pellets: These are used in the manufacturing of plastic (sometimes called ‘nurdles’) and are thought to account for less than 1% of overall plastic in the ocean. Operation Clean Sweeep® is run by the plastics industry to prevent leakage of plastic pellets, flakes and powders into the environment from manufacturing and distribution facilities.
Source: Boucher J and Froit D (2017) Primary microplastics in the Oceans. A Global Evaluation of Sources. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN 43pp
Current research indicates that the largest source of leakage of plastic items into the oceans is from a small number of Asian and Pacific Rim countries, which account for over 80% of ocean waste. These include China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria and Bangladesh.
Source: Jambeck et al. 'Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean'. Marine Pollution
98% of the litter in our oceans emanates from countries outside Europe and the United States.
Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics
Recent research found that 88–95% of plastic in the ocean comes from just 10 rivers – none are in the UK or Europe.
Schmidt, Krauth, Wagner 'Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea', Environ. Sci. Technol. 2017.
Countries of origin
The majority of litter in the seas and oceans comes from outside of Europe, meaning that it is vitally important that other countries also take action.
In countries with robust waste management facilities, litter is largely due to the thoughtless disposal of waste on land. Tackling this issue requires us to focus on changing the way people discard items in our communities.
80% of the plastic found in the ocean is estimated to have come from land-based sources.
The remaining 20% is thought to be the result of water-related activities.
Source: European Commission. Our Oceans, Seas and Coasts
Plastic and other items generally enter the environment as a result of irresponsible behaviour or a lack of appropriate infrastructure. However, we must provide people with the opportunity to do the right thing – we need developed waste infrastructures that are easily available.
The UN estimates that 'at least 2 billion people worldwide still lack access to solid waste collection'.
Source: UNEP, Global Waste Management Outlook, 2015.
As these people are left to rely on dumpsites, which are often located near oceans or waterways, it is understandable how this leakage occurs. The solution to this issue is to improve waste infrastructure services. Read more about solutions.
In countries where there are strong waste management practices, such as the UK, the litter that escapes into the natural environment is typically either due to the shortcomings of infrastructure in certain parts of the country and/ or careless disposal.
For example, there may not be enough bins available for people to use on the go, or they may not be emptied frequently enough. Many people don’t realise that rubbish sat on top of or beside an overflowing bin can easily be blown into the surrounding environment and make its way into the ocean.
Learn more about solutions for the UK
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic below 5mm in size. Microplastics can be either primary or secondary.