Since mankind first began manufacturing and producing waste, the ocean has been viewed as the ultimate sink to wash away all problems. Over centuries of dumping into large bodies of water, marine waste has accumulated into a global issue that can no longer be ignored. Marine waste is defined as any persistent manufactured solid material that is directly or indirectly disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment, including oceans, seas and the Great Lakes. It may pose a serious threat not only to aquatic animals, but to all life on Earth.
Sources of Marine Waste
14 billion pounds of waste accumulates in the oceans annually and travels around the globe by wind and natural currents. Although the sheer volume makes it extremely difficult to track all sources of marine waste, several major contributing sources have been identified.
Even though plastics have only been in mass production since the mid 20th century, they now account for 99.9% of all pieces of marine waste. Annual accumulation in oceans is estimated to be between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons. A large portion of the 322 million tons of plastic produced annually serves an ephemeral function and then quickly becomes waste. A small percentage of plastics are recycled while the majority ends up either in a landfill or natural environments, specifically oceans. Over time, larger plastics are weathered and degraded into microplastics by the sun, temperature variations, harsh aquatic environments, and marine life. Microplastics (<5 mm) account for only 8% of waste by mass, but 94% by items. It is currently impossible to filter them out of the water, and they eventually enter the food chain as toxic particles, posing health threats to all living species.
It has been estimated that 80% of marine garbage originates from land. Inadequate coverage and management of landfills can lead to loose trash blowing directly into ocean and stormwater runoff capturing and carrying debris into bodies of water.
The fishing industry accounts for 46% of marine waste by mass, primarily resulting from lost or discarded fishing gear. In an effort to reduce the serious threat that drift fishing gear poses to marine life, several states, including California, have approved a bill that bans gill nets and other fishing nets. Although it has helped protect marine life, this bill and other movements to reduce waste from the industry threaten the livelihood of the more than 60 million people employed in fisheries and aquaculture worldwide. In the U.S. alone, $84 billion dollars worth of captured fish increased Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by $235 billion dollars, as a result of the multiplier effect. The economic impact is even greater in developing countries, as they are responsible for 75% of fishing exports worldwide. With over 3.2 billion people obtaining 20% of their protein from fish, regulating the industry and its contribution to marine waste would likely have immense effects across the globe.
Before the Ocean Dumping Act of 1972, communities around the world used the ocean and larger bodies of water for large-scale disposal of chemical waste, industrial waste, radioactive waste, trash, and sewage sludge. Wastes were dumped off the coast and in the open ocean with the assumption that marine waters had an inexhaustible capacity to disperse and manage waste. The wide-scale negative impacts of this mentality, along with any opportunities to recycle and reuse these materials, was given little attention. Although ocean dumping was drastically reduced after it was made illegal in 1972, the accumulation of waste had already left a devastating mark on the marine environment.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Due to major current systems across all oceans, large portions of marine garbage accumulate into massive gyres. These vortexes act as large ensnaring masses of trash and debris. These accumulations aren’t limited to visible pieces of garbage. Unlike organic debris, plastic disintegrates into smaller particles without changing chemically. For this reason, a large majority of the marine garbage congregates into patches of water with high concentrations of microplastics.
The largest of these patches, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, floats in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California. The 3.5 million square kilometer patch has more than 20,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer and is larger than the size of Texas. The patch remains a relatively stationary region of the North Pacific, and its rotation pulls in garbage from the North American and Japanese coastal waters.
While plastics and other non-biodegradable materials make up the majority of marine waste by both volume and mass, organic waste has its own consequences. Nutrient-rich organic waste can lead to rapid algae growth, a phenomenon called algae bloom. The growth can exhaust oxygen levels (hypoxia) in a process called Eutrophication, which in turn causes aquatic life mortality and emigration. Fish can also die from the neurotoxic effects of algae blooms when phytoplankton enter their bloodstreams. 
Large quantities of plastic not only pollute the ocean, but also directly harm marine life. 233 species are documented to have consumed plastic. Ingested debris is hypothesized to have a variety of consequences, including decreased stomach space and false satiation, internal injury, and cellular necrosis. There is also a risk of contamination by the toxic chemicals incorporated in plastics from manufacturing. Furthermore, microplastic ingestion has been correlated to adverse health effects, such as liver stress, in laboratory fish. While multiple studies link death to plastic ingestion, none currently have shown direct evidence of population impact.
With more than 705,000 tonnes of annually lost fishing gear, experts estimate that at least 136,000 animals are killed as a result of marine garbage. Entanglement, often caused by used nets and plastic rope, has been reported in 344 species. Entanglement can result in injury, loss of mobility, and in the case of seals, whales, and other mammals, drowning.
Efforts to Mitigate the Issue
Beach cleanups are volunteer activities to collect and clear trash from the shoreline. The Ocean Conservancy is an advocacy organization that forms and supports policies to protect the ocean. They spearheaded the International Coastal Cleanup, the largest annual volunteer effort to clean beaches around the globe. Since 1985, nearly 13 million volunteers have collected 249 million pounds of trash. Volunteers log each item, allowing The Ocean Conservancy to release an annual report of their findings. These reports have helped enact policy change and inspired hundreds of new volunteers. Individuals have also inspired great change. Afroz Shah, a lawyer in Mumbai, inspired thousands of volunteers to clean the local Versova Beach. Over 21 months, the volunteers collected nearly 11.7 million pounds of trash.
The Ocean Cleanup Project
Founded by then 18-year-old Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, the Ocean Cleanup is the largest cleanup attempt in history. The project is estimated to remove 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch over the next 5 years. The technology is autonomous, energy neutral, and scalable. Algorithms determine the optimal deployment locations, and the system is entirely powered by ocean currents and solar energy. If deemed successful, additional systems can be deployed to expand to other locations or yield faster cleanups. The system itself is a long floater and attached skirt that creates a coastline in the middle of the ocean. The system will collect the garbage for transportation back to land. However, this is not an optimal solution because an estimated 80% of ocean trash comes from land. Additionally, the Ocean Cleanup cannot catch microplastics, which form 92% of the plastic in the ocean by particles. Other critics argue that preventing plastic-use on land is a more effective long-term solution.
The Straw Ban
Of the 8 million metric tons of plastics that enter the oceans annually, 0.03% can be attributed to straws. Straws also accounted for 5.5% of items found at the average beach cleanup in 2017. Straws have gained a lot of attention in 2018 due to the Straw Ban. Some attribute the Straw Ban’s momentum to viral social media posts. Numerous cities and corporations have announced that they will eliminate straw use in the coming years.
Proponents of the ban hope that straws will act as a gateway plastic and result in positive “spillover.” Spillover is the notion that a given behavior can motive other, similar behaviors. The goal of the straw ban is to facilitate conversations and help individuals realize just how prevalent single-use plastics are in society. Ideally, this will encourage individuals to also give up other single-use products or support environmental causes. On the other hand, the straw ban could result in “negative spillover,” with individuals increasing their use of other single-use plastics in compensation. For instance, Starbucks’ alternative to straws utilizes 15.8% more plastic than the traditional lid-and-straw combination.
Vocal critics of the straw ban are the plastics industry and the disability community. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) states that the straw ban “won’t solve [the] problem” of keeping plastics out of the ocean. Instead, the ACC advocates improvements to waste management and collection for developing countries, who are the main source of plastic pollution in the ocean. Disability advocates state that the alternatives to plastic straws are not sufficient for those who view them as a necessity. Plastic straws are unique because they “offer a remarkable combination of affordability, tensile strength, and flexibility.” Alternative materials like metal, wood, glass, and paper are uncomfortable, expensive, ineffective, and may even increase the risk of injury.
The Plastic Bag Ban
Plastic bag bans have been another popular initiative to mitigate plastic waste in the oceans, and the results appear promising. In 2002, Ireland imposed a plastic bag tax which has resulted in a 95% reduction of plastic bag litter. Similarly, Australia has reported an 80% reduction in plastic bag consumption after two major supermarkets banned them in the fall of 2018.
The most common alternative to plastic bags are paper bags. Though paper is environmentally friendlier from a marine standpoint, it has a higher carbon footprint than plastic. This is because paper production and transportation requires more resources and has higher carbon dioxide emissions. In order for paper bags to offset their negative environmental impact relative to plastic bags, they would have to be reused 3 times. However, paper bags tend be used as single-use bags due to their poor durability. Cotton bags would have to be reused 131 times to offset their negative environmental impact. Cotton farming causes soil degradation and requires high consumption of water, fertilizer, and pesticides.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was a comprehensive effort to define a nation’s responsibility and rights regarding the ocean. Since the 17th century, the oceans operated under the freedom-of-the-seas doctrine, which limited a country's jurisdiction to only 3 nautical miles past its shores. UNCLOS replaced this notion, and extended the limit of ownership, allowing countries more jurisdiction over resources and pollution control. Today, most countries retain ownership of 12 nautical miles past shorelines. Some countries have not extended their borders, while small countries that rely heavily on fishing have borders that extend 200 nautical miles past their shores.
In the United States, the primary law in charge of water pollution is the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, or the Clean Water Act. It focuses on controlling the pollution and sanitation of interstate, surface, and underground waters. The Clean Water Act helps mitigate the flow of marine waste from rivers and tributaries, which are a major source of ocean pollution. Another major law passed in 1972 was the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act, or the Ocean Dumping Act. This law prevents non-permitted ocean dumping in the United State’s territorial seas, which extends twelve nautical miles past the baseline of the shore. It does not prohibit dumping beyond the United State’s jurisdiction.
There is currently no protection and conservation in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJs). The ocean is a common resource and, consequently, without a governing body. This makes it difficult to create large-scale initiatives to preventing marine waste accumulation in international waters. For such initiatives to take place, it would require numerous organizations to convene and agree on a solution. This is unlikely to occur, because the incentives to do so are low. Each of these institutions have their own agendas, usually prioritizing the sovereign nation they are affiliated with. The ocean is a finite resource, and relaxed regulations of international waters, ranging from unrestrained fishing to industrial dumping of waste, are arguably to a nation’s benefit. Thus, it is difficult to propose solutions to which all institutions will agree on.
Marine waste is an undeniable problem, and most agree that action must be taken to mitigate its effects. However, numerous obstacles are in place that prevent such action from being widely successful. One such obstacle is the Tragedy of the Commons, which occurs because the ocean is a shared resource. As numerous independent individuals use it according to their own self-interests, the resource is exhausted and negatively impacts all that are involved. Additionally, current solutions to marine waste inevitably create repercussions that must be considered. Plastic bans, spurred by social movements, have largely been gateway movements. Even though some have been successful, the alternatives to single-use plastic products have higher carbon footprints and are often ineffective. Since the effects of marine waste on human life have not been established, there has been a minimal urge to take responsibility, fund research, and look into alternative viable solutions. It could take five to ten years to establish the effect on humans. By that point, millions of pounds of additional trash will have flowed into the oceans.
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