What happens to plastic in the ocean?

Plastic in the ocean comes from people. Now let's have a look and see what that plastic does in the ocean. Where does it go?

For humans, plastic is cheap and convenient. For marine animals, plastic is a floating minefield. Plastic pollution is one of the most serious threats to the health of our oceans. Because plastic is indestructible it is extremely hard to get rid of. Plastic never disappears.

When plastic breaks down or degrades, it is just torn into smaller and smaller pieces. Until it becomes so small you can hardly see it with the naked eye. This is known as microplastic.

Source: 5 Gyres

More and more plastic is being produced everyday, which means more and more waste. Most of the plastic that is made today is meant to throw away, like plastic containers, cups, bags and bottles. The problem is that a lot of this plastic does not get recycled, and ends up in landfills or on the street. From here, the plastic can easily make the journey from land to sea.

Some plastics are already microscopic when they enter the ocean. Nurdles are used to make larger plastic objects, and can be smaller than peas! Some of these plastic building blocks make their way into the ocean, in factory waste or containers that have fallen off ships transporting plastic around the world.

Similarly small are microbeads, which are part of some face scrubs. These tiny plastic pellets wash down the drain and can reach the ocean if they are not filtered out of our waste water.

Plastic nurdles are used in the production of plastic products. Source: Marine Science Centre

Millions of plastic nurdles washed ashore. Source: Journey to the plastic ocean

Different types of plastic end up in different parts of the ocean. Most plastic is lighter than water and floats near the surface. This plastic gets carried around the world's oceans in currents. The plastic that stays near the surface gets battered and weakened by the waves and sun, which cause it to break down into smaller pieces. Other plastics and debris sink to the ocean floor. Very little is known about the life of these plastics, because it is so hard to explore the deep dark ocean floor.

Plastic floating on the ocean surface. Source: Safety4Sea

A seafill site packed with tyres, televisions and plastic. Source: Steve Spring (Seaweb)

Congratulations! But this is just the beginning..

Now you've finished all six lessons of plastinography, what's next?

Go out and let others know about plastics in our ocean. Perhaps share this with your friends on Facebook?

If you want to find out more, please contact us

plastinography.org was created by Dr Erik van Sebille, Jennifer Halstead and Chloe Vandervord at UNSW Australia. Artwork by Social Growth. Support for this site is provided by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science and the NeCTAR Research Cloud.