The impact of ocean litter on humans

It was the 1950’s when humans began a love affair with plastic, and its industrial production increased exponentially. Since that time roughly 9.2 billion tonnes has been produced globally, and each year 130,000 tonnes of plastic comes from Australia alone [1]. All of this plastic ends up somewhere, with around 8 million tonnes of it is flowing into our oceans annually.

When we “throw away” plastic, there is no “away”. The life cycle of plastic means it never truly disappears, and instead breaks down into smaller pieces that can be found at all levels of the ocean environment. Scientists now estimate that a staggering 5.25 trillion pieces are swirling around in our oceans today.

Hidden in plain sight between between Hawaii and California, you can find the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – 1 of 5 areas in the global ocean where plastic collects due to the flow of oceanic currents. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest of them all and covers a surface area of approximately 1.6 million square kilometres – roughly the size of Queensland. Below the surface, even more plastic has been found to have sunk to the ocean floor, causing further harm to life even in the deepest points of our planet’s waters.

Plastic pollution has been a well evidenced problem in our oceans for years, killing 100,000 marine animals and 1 million seabirds each year. Turtles ingesting plastic bags mistaken for jellyfish and seals and seabirds getting caught in plastic rings are just some examples of how plastic is causing havoc in our oceans [2].

Over time it has become clear that ocean litter is not just a major problem for life below water, but for humans as well. Research now shows the negative impacts of plastic on everything from our food, to our economy, and even our mental health.

Once plastic begins to break down in the water it eventually turns into toxic microplastics that enter the food chain. Wildlife often mistakes microplastics for food, and they have been found in over 690 marine animal species including prawns, mussels, oysters, crabs and small fish. With the average Australian consuming 13.7kg of seafood a year, scientists are now looking into the effects microplastics can have on human health through eating seafood. It is estimated that humans already consume between 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles a year through the food we eat [3].

Oceans are one of the earth’s most valuable assets with the World Economic Forum valuing their natural capital at $70 trillion annually. Marine industries such fisheries, aquaculture and recreation depend on the provision of sustainable ocean resources to support economies and livelihoods. The economic costs of ocean plastics has been conservatively estimated at between $3300 and $33,000 per tonne of marine plastic per year, however, the full economic cost is likely to be far greater. For communities who depend on these industries for their future survival, reducing ocean litter is becoming increasingly more critical [4].

There is substantial evidence that coastlines and waterways make people happier, calmer and more refreshed, but what happens when these mood enhancing environments are polluted by ocean litter? Scientists are beginning to research how pollution can undermine the mental health benefits that come from healthy oceans and waterways. A study by Plymouth University investigated the psychological impact of ocean litter and found it significantly reduced the restorative quality of beaches for participants. As more litter accumulates in our oceans, there may be a continued decline in the mental health benefits we can draw from them [5].

The lives of humans and oceans have always been intrinsically linked. Drastic action needs to be taken to reduce the harm caused by plastics to both ocean life and humans. Fortunately, there are many ways in which we can prevent plastic from entering our oceans and causing harm.

Through #SeaToSource we’ll be running a series of workshops to help communities identify common types of plastic found in their waterways, recognise where they’ve come from, and figure out ways to eliminate these from use, or at least prevent them from entering our creeks, rivers and bays.


Get Involved

We’re here to make it easy to take action for nature across Australia, and we would love your help. Check out the ways that you can get involved in tackling ocean litter through #SeaToSource.