How much plastic is in the ocean, and can we all help solve the crisis?

Humanity produces about 400 million tons of plastic every year – nearly half of it for single-use products like cups, clamshells, bottles, bags and throw-away consumer products. This plastic is generally used for 30 minutes or less, but will spend 500-1,000 years decomposing. For about 11 million tons of it, the ocean will become its landfill. That’s how much plastic ends up being dumped, washed or blown into our marine environments every year. To better visualize how much trash this is, picture a standard garbage truck backing up to the water and dumping it’s full contents into the sea – every minute of every day of the year. That’s how much 11 million tons is. And that’s what’s happening all the time now.

Here’s How Much Plastic is in Our Oceans, and How Much More There Will Be in 2050

Ocean Plastic Waste in 2021

Estimates place the current amount of plastic waste at 150-200 million tons – the result of an accumulation over the past 50 years that has greatly accelerated in just the past 15 years. In fact, nearly half the plastic waste on Earth has been created in just the last 15 years. Sadly, this means that children born since the turn of the century – and forevermore in the future – will never know what a clean ocean is like, and will never play or swim in waters that aren’t filled with plastic litter.

Saltwater, waves and wind are like a giant tumbler for the waste already in the ocean, so most of this trash starts to break apart into much smaller pieces that become a bigger threat to sea life. It’s estimated there are 5.25 trillion individual pieces of plastic debris floating at or just below the ocean surface. Nearly every square mile of water has about 46,000 pieces of plastic bits floating in it.

Our oceans may seem vast and indomitable, but we’ve managed to foul them for the next 1,000 years by treating the seas as an open sewer. Each year, a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die from ingesting the plastic, which they’ve mistaken for food, or becoming entangled in the waste.

Humans haven’t escaped the consequences of this ocean plastic, either. The smaller piece of plastic are eaten by fish which are then caught and served to people. We are eating much of the plastic they’ve ingested and it’s collecting in our bodies. Estimates are that humans now consume about 5 grams of plastic per week in their diets from things like fish, bottled water and other products derived from these risky consumables. That’s equivalent to the plastic used to make a credit card – and that’s what we’re eating every week!

What’s the Forecast for Ocean Plastic?

Without serious help from the public, the future of ocean plastic is grim. Recent studies project that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than marine life! More plastic trash than fish. That’s partly because we’re increasing our dumping into the seas, and we’re killing off our marine life at a faster rate. Pretty soon, the idea of going snorkeling to see pretty fish swimming around will be a quaint memory. In 2050 there will be about 897 tons of plastic in the oceans – 82 trash trucks per minute – and there will be about 850 million tons of fish left.

So where do you fit into all of this? You quite literally couldn’t be more important as part of the solution. Until consumers stop accepting single-use plastic and demanding that manufacturers switch to materials that don’t harm the environment, the situation will continue to worsen. As a consumer, you have all the power to demand better products, and reward companies that try to protect our ecosystem while turning your back on those that don’t.

These businesses count on your cooperation in boosting their profits by letting them off easy when it comes to the waste they create. If they were held responsible for the entire lifecycle of their product, you can bet they would make them with much better materials. But since dumping in the ocean is essentially free, that’s what they count on.

One easy change you can make is saying no to plastic water bottles. Americans throw away 50 billion of them every year and the planet as a whole tosses out 500 billion of them. Using a refillable bottle for your drinks will save you money and prevent hundreds of plastic bottles from ending up in dumps and the oceans.