Why We Dump 28 Billion Pounds of Plastic into the Ocean

A new study reveals that we are dumping plastic into the ocean at an alarming rate. Why isn’t all of this plastic being recycled? What can we do to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean? Ask Science has 3 easy tips to cut down onreduce our plastic waste.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #135

Hi I’m Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt, and I’m Ask Science bringing you Quick and Dirty Tips to help you make sense of science.

Last week close to 8,000 people, including scientists from more than 50 countries, gathered in San Jose, California for the big annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The AAAS meetings are unique because they bring together researchers from across all science disciplines, from biology to physics and chemistry to science education, to present their work.

One study highlighted at last week’s meeting and led by environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck was a look at just how much plastic we dump into the ocean. Jambeck and her team found that in 2010, 275 million metric tons of plastic were produced by the 192 coastal countries included in the study. Between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons (or between 10.6 and 28 billion pounds) of that plastic ended up in the ocean.

That’s between 360 and 950 times the weight of the Brooklyn Bridge in plastic!

Why isn’t all of this plastic being recycled? What can we do as individuals to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean? Stay tuned to find out..

We are dumping plastic into the ocean at an alarming rate, and these numbers will only get worse with population growth. Our oceanic trash piles are so big, we’re even naming them! The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a patch (or more specifically several separate patches) of garbage that is over twice the size of Texas! 

It has been trapped by currents in the northern Pacific Ocean. The pile includes marine debris, chemical sludge, and, you guessed it, plastic.

To see why this plastic isn’t being recycled, we must first understand what makes up plastic.

What Is a Polymer?

Plastics are usually made up of polymers, or large chain molecules that can be broken up into many repeated parts. Most plastics are synthetic and require the use of petroleum-derived chemicals to produce, but some are natural.

The type of polymer or polymers that make up a specific plastic are noted by the resin identification code, or the small number you see printed inside the triangle on most plastic products. Numbers 1 through 6 refer to specific polymers, like polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, or polypropylene, while the number 7 is used as a catchall for the remaining more than 2,000 kinds of polymers and polymer blends.

Plastics are very popular for packaging everyday items because they are easy to produce, relatively cheap, water-proof, and extremely versatile. We use them in our plumbing, our cars, our furniture, and our toys. In some cases, we can get multiple uses out of our plastics, but when it comes to recycling, not all plastics are created equal.


Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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