According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world produces some 300 million tons of plastics every year of which 8 million tons each year end up in our oceans. This pollution has a direct negative impact on human and wildlife health and ecosystems, not to mention tourism.

How Do Plastics End Up in Our Oceans?

Of all the different kinds of debris found in the ocean, plastics are the most common. Abandoned fishing gear, food wrappers, bottle caps, and tons of single-use products like plastic bags, water bottles, and food containers get swept into the ocean via rivers and streams, overflowing sewers, poorly managed waste disposal facilities, and careless beach-goers.

What Harm Do These Plastics Cause?

We've all seen the sad pictures of birds, fish, and other wildlife who have been strangled by plastic six-pack holders discarded into the water. We've heard the stories about whales that have suffocated or have been internally lacerated from ingesting plastics they mistook for food. And we've seen how ugly some of our most beautiful beaches have become because of the carelessness of our fellow human beings.

But this is only the half of it. Left to decay in saltwater, solar UV radiation, wind, and currents deteriorate plastics, breaking them down into minute particles. These particles may be invisible to the naked eye, but they retain their carcinogenic chemicals even as they are ingested by fish and other sea life. Those fish are ingested by larger fish, eventually making it up the food chain to humans. While more research needs to be done, it is believed these carcinogens can cause a variety of developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune disorders in both humans and wildlife.

What Steps Can We Take to Reduce the Amount of Marine Plastics?

A number of global policies have been established, but challenges remain to get countries to comply, in part due to a lack of resources to enforce rules.

Bottle bills, where consumers are required to pay a five or ten cent deposit when they purchase single-use beverage containers and get that money back upon redemption, have been very successful in the ten U. S. states that have such bills. The carrot/stick approach has helped shape behaviors of consumers. Discarded bottles are also more likely to get picked up by people who depend on the redemption amounts as a source of income. Such bills should be encouraged in non-participating states.

On an individual level, however, the triangular practice of reusing, reducing, and recycling should be second nature. Eliminating disposable single-use plastic bags and plastic water bottles in favor of reusable grocery bags and water bottles are simple ways that individuals can make a difference in their communities.

Another way you can help is by organizing or participating in river and inland waterway clean-ups. These efforts go a long way to helping keep plastics as well as other trash from reaching the ocean.

What Can We Do About the Plastic That's Already in Our Oceans?

Thankfully, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the world, and more and more of these new entrepreneurs are sustainably-minded. In recent years there has been a burst of new technologies that are being utilized to make popular products from coastal and marine recycled plastic textiles. Single-use plastic bottles retrieved from oceans and rivers are being turned into yarns, fabrics, and polymers to make everything from clothing and shoes to tote bags, skateboards, windows, and upholstery. One company even turns fishing lines into sunglasses. When you show your support for and purchase such recycled products, you are taking a step toward cleaning up our oceans.

Plastics aren't going anywhere. They last forever in the environment. And, unfortunately, because plastics are strong, malleable, and lightweight as well as being cheap to produce, they are going to remain the go-to product for manufacturers and food processing companies for the indefinite future. As a global society, if we want to protect our oceans and our health, we must learn to rethink our policies, our technologies, and especially our behaviors with regard to plastic use.

Author's Bio: 

Anita is a freelance writer from Denver, CO. She studied at Colorado State University and now enjoys writing about health, business, and family. A mother of two wonderful children, she loves traveling with her family whenever she isn’t writing. You can find her on Twitter @anitaginsburg.