Jo Benn recently joined the Virgin Unite team to manage Ocean Unite – a new initiative set up to assist with the unique challenge of placing the ocean at the forefront of political consciousness. In her first #staffreads, Jo explores a thought-provoking report about plastic waste. 

A ground-breaking global study was released by the journal Science last week. It is an eye-watering read with researchers in the US and Australia sharing calculations on the amount of waste plastic generated in 192 countries with coastlines on the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the Mediterranean and Black Seas. 

Their stark conclusion? We underestimated. 

The study explained that there is 10 to 30 times more plastic debris in the ocean than surveys have found floating on the surface. The report showed that coastal countries were responsible for around eight million tonnes of plastic rubbish being dumped into the ocean in 2010; an annual figure that – without major improvements in waste management – could double over the next decade.

In other words, and according to the Ocean Conservancy, the ocean will hold about one kilogramme of plastic for every three kilogrammes of fish over the next 10 years, if left unabated.

Plastic pollution is of course, hard to count. At sea it forms floating waste, washes up on coastlines, and accumulates on the sea floor, and has been found in the remotest and deepest corners of the ocean.

Larger items like bags, bottles and fishing gear can wrap around dolphins, turtles and even whales. Small pieces are eaten by fish, turtles and seabirds. Over time, the material breaks down into tiny particles (micro plastics) that are eaten by small marine animals. The pollution is extremely difficult to remove from the environment or even trace back to its source.

Almost half of the plastic we use is ‘single use’ and then thrown away. Some countries dump plastic litter into watercourses that carry the material out to sea. Much of the plastic becomes marine debris because it is not properly disposed of in landfills or at recycling plants. 

If we want to crack down on all that plastic, knowing where it all comes from could be as important as knowing how much there is. 

The study also ranked the 20 countries responsible for the most waste plastic ending up in the ocean.

The greatest sources were not only the major plastic producers, but generally those nations with the worst waste management practices.

The old adage says: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. In this case, it’s easy to disagree – we don’t necessarily need more data on the impact of plastic on ocean life (unless one could argue that the data is so shocking it compels urgent and bold action).

What we do need are: alliances between business leaders and policy makers; more efficient collection and recycling of plastics; huge improvements in waste management in fast growing and emerging economies; alternatives where possible to plastic materials; incentives to re-use and recycle; and a global recognition that ocean pollution must not be the genie that escaped the plastic bottle. 

Thankfully, we still have some time to get things back on track. Have you got an idea to create alternatives to plastics?

How about cutting disposable plastics out of your routine? Simple alternatives include bringing your own bag to the store, choosing reusable items wherever possible, and purchasing plastic with recycled content.