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Plastic waste in the oceans

A new BBC nature documentary series presented by Sir David Attenborough, "Blue Planet II", is being currently shown on TV in the UK. The first episode of the new series was broadcast last Sunday evening. It looks like Attenborough is going to use this documentary series to raise awareness of plastic waste in the oceans, in addition to using his documentaries as a platform to raise awareness of man-made global warming (he's been doing the latter since 2006, following the BBC's '28Gate' climate change seminar), according to this article in the Guardian from a few weeks ago:

attenborough urges action on plastic

A few extracts from the article:

"Sir David Attenborough has called for the world to cut back on its use of plastic in order to protect oceans. His new BBC TV series, Blue Planet II, is to demonstrate the damage the material is causing to marine life.

Speaking at the launch of Blue Planet II, which will be broadcast 16 years after the original series, the broadcaster and naturalist said action on plastics should be taken immediately and that humanity held the future of the planet “in the palm of its hands”.

His comments come amid growing global calls for cutbacks in the use of plastic. Last week, the former boss of Asda, Andy Clarke, said supermarkets should stop using plastic packaging."

"Attenborough said rising global temperatures and plastic were the biggest concerns for the ocean. “What we’re going to do about 1.5 degrees rise in the temperature of the ocean over the next 10 years, I don’t know, but we could actually do something about plastic right now,” he said."

"Attenborough, 91, did not specify what could be done, but cutting back on plastic packaging and plastic bags in supermarkets would be a major step.

He said everyone’s actions had an impact on the ocean. “We have a responsibility, every one of us,” he said. “We may think we live a long way from the oceans, but we don’t. What we actually do here, and in the middle of Asia and wherever, has a direct effect on the oceans – and what the oceans do then reflects back on us.”"

My own guess regarding the main cause of this plastic waste problem, which seems to be a relatively recent problem (I've only heard anybody talking about it in the last five years or so), is that people in developing countries that are undergoing rapid economic growth probably don't have such things as organised refuse collection (garbage collection), and are just throwing their rubbish in rivers or the sea. The UK (and probably developed countries in general) has had municipal waste management since the dawn of "the plastic age" (which is generally reckoned to have started around 1930), and plastic waste is generally small enough to fit in a dustbin, so the UK contribution to this problem will be negligible.

But Attenborough seems to be taking the politically correct line that citizens of all countries are equally responsible. We are even already carrying out some of this cutback in the use of plastic in the UK thanks to the Green lobby - an example being where UK citizens are charged a 5p tax to be supplied with a plastic bag by a shop (apparently the tax is not collected by the UK government, it goes to 'good causes' selected by the shop, which I suspect might often be environmental charities - so the Green lobby has effectively created a new income stream for itself in taxing plastic).

I did a bit of Googling to see if anybody has done any research into who is actually causing the plastic waste problem, and found this Daily Mail article:

ocean plastic comes from 10 rivers

According to some German researchers, 88% to 95% of plastic waste in the oceans is coming from only ten rivers. Eight of the 10 rivers are in Asia, the other two in Africa. The main countries responsible for the plastic waste appear to be China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Re: Plastic waste in the oceans

There is a chance of course that we are just outsourcing the problem with our "recycling" programs. We carefully keep plastic out of our environment by putting them in our recycle bins. The recycle bins get picked up carefully by our Sanitation Engineers. The Sanitation Engineers deliver them to the collection facility. The collection facility bundles everything up and then sells it to China...


I have read other research pointing to a vanishing problem. They filtered sea water through various levels of sieves and plotted the amounts of plastic by size. There is a size of plastic where it stops appearing in the water. One answer is that it is being eaten by animals.

Re: Plastic waste in the oceans

That's an interesting theory Brad, if developed countries are contributing to the 'plastic waste in the oceans' problem to any extent, it is probably through the practice of sending plastic waste abroad for 'recycling'. If the recyclers in developing countries can't make use of all the plastic waste they import, they may just dump the surplus in rivers.

After doing a bit of research, I found that China is the world's predominant recycler of plastic waste:

China and plastic waste recycling

The EU apparently exports 87% of the plastic waste it collects to China, including Hong Kong. But China has recently announced a policy where it intends to cut back substantially on importing foreign waste from next year onwards, and will recycle its own domestic waste instead, so much of the plastic waste collected in developed countries may have nowhere to go. If China recycles its own plastic waste, that will obviously keep some of its own plastic waste out of the rivers.

One country I was expecting to be a big contributor to the 'plastic waste in the oceans' problem was Mexico, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Mexico is notorious for having a litter problem, as discussed in this US newspaper article from ten years ago:

Mexico litter problem

Rubbish gets thrown into rivers in Mexico (the article mentions an incident where the Grijalva River got clogged with trash in a narrow gorge), but it may be that the geography of their rivers is such that not much gets carried into the sea.