Plastic pollution has reached a crisis point, especially in the ocean. 

Despite growing awareness of the problem, the flow of plastic waste continues to increase exponentially – across the world. The vast majority of this originates from the land. This is contaminating precious water systems, threatening marine life, passing up the food chain, and affecting human health, infiltrating other cultures, impacting wildlife and encouraging a throwaway consumer culture across the world.

Plastics production has soared over the past 50 years, from 15m tonnes in 1964 to 311m tonnes in 2014. This figure is expected to double over the next 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050. Estimates suggest that at least 8m tonnes of plastics leak from land to sea every year and that there are over 150 million tonnes of plastics in the ocean today.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Melinda Watson, Plastic

If the projected growth of plastic production and business-as-usual trends continue, warnings indicate the oceans will contain more plastic (by weight) than fish by 2050. By that time, the production of plastic will account for 20 per cent of the world’s total oil consumption and represent 15 per cent of the global annual carbon budget.

The production, use and disposal of single-use plastic has become one of the most serious environmental and human health problems facing us today. It is everywhere.

Frustratingly, most of this waste is primary micro-plastics, such as plastic pellets and microbeads, and secondary microplastics originating from single-use plastic and packaging.

Not only is this damaging to our marine environment and human health, it makes absolutely no sense economically. Exceeding the industry’s profit pool, approximately $80 – 120 billion is lost to the world economy every year – purely because 95 per cent of all single-use plastic is thrown away every year. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Melinda Watson, Plastic

We know, over half of land-based plastic waste leakage originates in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. But, no one knows exactly how much debris is entering the ocean from the rapidly emerging economies in Africa and South America. They remain largely uncharted and unaccounted. 

Leading a world first expedition, I set off to track the world’s plastic footprint the length of Africa, even in some of the most remote areas of the continent. What types and quantities of plastic waste were there? Where did they originate? What were the impacts? What is being done about it? And what are the solutions?

We drove over 17,000 km from Cairo to Cape Town, bush-camping all the way. We (literally) dived into dangerous rubbish dumps, located landfill sites and surveyed source-to-sea debris. We opened government official doors, met waste ministers and reviewed re-use and recycling initiatives. We carried out beach cleans, probed pristine environments and tapped into tribal wisdom. Importantly, we collaborated with local communities and created lasting links. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Melinda Watson, Plastic

We stopped every 100 km to record and take samples of the rubbish found next to the road or track. The data is so detailed that it has been possible to identify the extent of the impact of individual items and global brands, which collectively form the major source of the plastic waste.

Plastic pollution has been described as ‘the apocalyptic twin of climate change’. In my opinion, that is no exaggeration.

The information collected from my trip illustrates the urgent need to shine a spotlight on the sheer scale of the problem and transboundary nature of plastic pollution. Our use of plastic in the West is even affecting communities in remote areas of Africa – they don’t want it and, worst of all, they have no way of getting rid of it.

And African communities are not alone. I recently received a Facebook message from Puerto Nariño, located on the shore of the Amazon River in one of the remotest parts of the Amazon region. The majority of the residents are indigenous peoples, unique for their sustainable living model. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Melinda Watson, Plastic

Having never used plastics themselves traditionally, the tribes are now encountering growing volumes of plastic waste. Coupled with inadequate treatment of water, people are reduced to having to buy bottled water. I find that idea deeply disturbing, but I am sorry to say I don’t find it surprising.

Our actions over the next 10 years will determine the state of the ocean for the next 10,000 years.

 – Sylvia Earle

It is not hard to see that this is an issue that affects everyone. It is a clear message for compelling change. Plastic pollution has been described as ‘the apocalyptic twin of climate change’. In my opinion, that is no exaggeration.


Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Melinda Watson, Plastic

The actions I’m urging people and governments to take include:

  • Introducing policies and setting targets to cut your plastic footprint by moving towards a closed-loop system of production and circular economy
  • Committing to phase out primary micro-plastics and the use of single-use plastics
  • Establishing Operation Clean Sweep as guidance to prevent plastic pellet loss
  • Prioritising reusable packaging and developing innovative delivery systems to encourage high levels of reuse or high quality recycling
  • Replacing plastic products and packaging with clean, reuse materials and circular economy solutions for a rapid reuse transition
  • Removing plastic components by substituting alternative materials at the same time
  • Disclosing the types and amount of plastic you use, reuse and recycle
Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Melinda Watson, Plastic

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This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.