In February 2017, residents on the Norwegian island of Sotra found a Cuvier’s beaked whale stranded on a beach in southwestern Norway. It wasn’t the first time this particular 20-foot-long male, who was visibly sick, had gotten stuck in the island’s shallow waters. After a few failed attempts to get the marine mammal safely back out to sea, Norwegian authorities made the painful decision to euthanize it. What they discovered later was startling.
When researchers from the nearby University of Bergen performed a necropsy on the whale, they found about 30 plastic bags and even more microplastics completely clogging its stomach. The animal had ingested candy wrappers and bread packaging with labels in Danish and English, mistaking them for food and leaving no room for the nutrition it needed.
“The incident created a lot of public attention in Norway,” says Eirik Lindebjerg, World Wildlife Fund’s Global Plastics Policy Manager. “and in turn led to the Norwegian government to take an active role internationally on the issue.” The following year, the government announced plans to spend 1,6 billion NOK (approx. 200 million USD) over a four-year period combating plastic pollution in oceans both locally and worldwide.
The Plastics Problem
According to studies done by the non-profit Pew Charitable Trusts, it is estimated that nearly 13 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. That’s well over 28 billion pounds!
How does all this plastic get there?
Wind and rain carry the litter that’s tossed onto streets and loose within landfills into our streams and rivers, which inevitably leads to the sea. Microbeads from makeup and cleaning products find their way into our sinks and, in turn, water. Some plastics even get flushed down the toilet.
Once it’s in the ocean, gyres—large systems of rotating ocean currents—can churn them up and spread them. While waves and tides wash plastics onto beaches in some areas, at other times, they’re carried into the ocean depths or transported thousands of miles: in some cases, as far as Antarctica.
These plastics are not only unsightly, they’re deadly. Plastics kill marine mammals—like Sotra’s beached whale—that mistake it for food or get tangled within it. They trigger infection in coral reefs and disrupt mangrove root zones (both some of the world’s most important marine ecosystems), and they block up waterways and pollute drinking water. They even end up in our food.
Then there’s what happens to communities when these plastics wash up on land.
“Many places don’t have waste management capacities,” says Lindebjerg, “so they just burn it.” This releases toxic chemicals into the air, contributing to overall air pollution. However, if they just leave those plastics to be, the deteriorating microplastics can change the physical structure of the Earth.
Lindebjerg says that when Kenya banned single-use plastic bags in 2017, one of their big arguments was the effect that plastic waste had on agriculture. “It was both polluting the soil,” he says, “and killing the livestock that ingested it.”
When it comes to marine mammals alone, plastic pollution kills approximately 100,000 of them globally a year, and that death isn’t pretty. In some cases, such as the one in Norway, plastic can block their breathing passages and stomachs, causing them to either suffocate or starve. In other instances, they (along with seabirds, sea turtles, sharks, etc.) become ensnared in it.
There is also ghost fishing gear, which are items such as fishing nets, traps, and lines that have been either discarded in the ocean or lost to the sea. Much of it contains plastic. “And it’s one of the most harmful types of plastic pollution,” says Lindebjerg, “because it’s designed to kill from the beginning. It’s also made to last a long time in an ocean environment, which means it can continue killing sea life for centuries.”
One thing about plastic in particular: It doesn’t degrade. This means it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces and becomes increasingly difficult to identify. For example, when a container ship caught fire and sank off the southern coast of Sri Lanka in 2021, it was carrying more than 50 billion plastic pellets known as nurdles.
Six weeks later, these nurdles covered 40% of the local coastline, blending in with the environment. They’ve affected the lives of tens of thousands of fishers, who can no longer utilize the waters, not to mention all of the seabirds and fish that have ingested them. Scientists estimate that any nurdles remaining will take hundreds of thousands of years to break down completely.
While plastic pollution is a global issue, there are some hot spots: places like Jamaica, Turkey, and Hong Kong, where WWF and local partners have launched a Plastic ACTion Initiative (PACT) to reduce single-use plastics, with a vision of eliminating it in nature completely by 2030.
Still, the question remains: What can we do?
It’s important for us to continue taking what may seem like small steps as we work toward a larger solution, says Lindebjerg. “Using less plastics when you can remains the number one advice for everyday consumers,” he says. This includes using “reuse solutions” such as sustainable water bottles and shopping bags whenever possible and choosing plastic alternatives like bamboo straws and biodegradable plates.
However, Lindebjerg recognizes that shopping at specialty stores for plastic alternatives, which can be twice the price of their counterparts, is not always viable. That’s why a larger systematic change is in order. “One in which the most pollution-prone or high-risk products are being banned at the global level,” he says, “and where there would be set product requirements for all other plastic products so that they would be designed for being recycled.”
Such a change would also lend a big hand to developing countries, which bear a lot of the brunt when it comes to plastic pollution. For example, Lindebjerg says, “Plastics come from oil that’s produced in, say, Saudi Arabia. and then changed into plastics by a big petrochem company, which in turn utilizes a large-scale consumer goods company that makes it into packaging.” This eventually ends up as waste in a country like Sierra Leone or Ethiopia that takes it on as a source of income. “Then they’re left with the problem.”
This is where we can really make a difference. “Public pressure is what should and often does drive government decisions,” says Lindebjerg. Demand that global leaders and policymakers ban single-use plastics outright and provide sustainable alternatives. Sign WWF’s petitions on ending plastic pollution and using your voice for the planet, and educate yourself with WWF’s report on the impact of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems worldwide.
“I think this is largely the reason we’re now negotiating a global treaty to end plastic pollution,” says Lindebjerg. “It’s because people have shown through different types of actions that they care, and are willing to put pressure on global leaders for change.”
The more we demand this change, the likelier it is to happen.