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Water: Marine Debris

Prevention, Control, and Reduction: Plastics

What Can You Do?

You can prevent plastic from entering our oceans. Find out more on the What You Can Do site.

Did You Know?
  • There are 7 types of plastics. Learn more about how plastics are made and recycled.
  • Of the 30.7 million tons of plastic generated in 2007, only 2.09 million tons, or less than 7%, were recycled. Learn more about municipal solid waste facts and figures (Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in the United States).
  • Naval ships are equipped with Plastic Waste Processors to crush and flatten plastic debris from the galley and other vessel operations. Learn more on the Plastic Wastes Recycled from Naval Vessels page.
  • Recycling plastic uses about 10 percent of the energy that it takes to make a pound of plastic from virgin materials. (EPA 2002 (PDF) (2 pp, 459K, About PDF))

Plastics

Just as plastics are a common material used in many aspects of our lives, plastics are also a common component of marine debris. As plastic usage has increased over the years, so has the amount of plastic entering the municipal solid waste stream, more commonly called garbage or trash. Between 1960 and 2007, the amount of plastic in the total solid waste stream increased from 1 to 12%. Plastics are a pervasive environmental problem, but they are a material that can be managed and a resource that can be conserved. Reducing the plastic component of marine debris depends upon better management of this resource.

Plastics are a component of a broad range of marine debris, anything from nets and rope used for fishing to shopping bags and beverage bottles. In the land-based solid waste stream, the largest category of plastics are those used in containers and packaging, such as soft drink bottles, lids, and shampoo bottles. Plastics are also found in durable (e.g., appliances and furniture) and non-durable goods (e.g., diapers, trash bags, cups, and utensils). Inevitably, some of these goods end up in the ocean. Plastic pellets, or the raw materials used to create plastic products, are also a common marine debris item. These small resin spheres can be lost and carried into the aquatic environment at various stages throughout their creation, transport, and use.

Like all solid waste, the primary strategies for effectively managing plastics are reduce, reuse, and recycle. Source reduction (Reduce and Reuse) can occur by altering the design, manufacture, or use of plastic products and materials. For example, the weight of a 2-liter plastic soft drink bottle has been reduced from 68 grams to 51 grams since 1977, resulting in a 250 million pound decrease of plastic per year in the waste stream. Reusing items prevents waste as it delays or avoids an item's entry into the waste stream and potentially the ocean. Recycling plastics also prevents excess waste by turning materials that otherwise might become marine debris into valuable resources.

In some cases, plastics from household and industrial uses cannot be reused or recycled. Proper disposal and management of these used plastics is necessary to prevent it from being carried into waterways and the ocean. For plastics from household uses this may include ensuring that plastics are properly disposed in a covered receptacle that will not be knocked over. For plastics from industrial uses, controlling plastic includes disposal in appropriately covered receptacles, and ensuring plastics are secured and covered when being transported. Municipalities also play a role in the control of plastics by ensuring that best management practices are followed for waste collection and that landfills are covered and contained.

Disposal of plastic wastes at sea is prevented by both international agreements and domestic legislation. MARPOL Annex V, which is formally called the 1978 Protocol to the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution by Ships, established regulations on discharging ship-generated garbage. These regulations include a prohibition on discharging any plastics at sea. Similarly, the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act (MPPRCA) (33 U.S.C. § 1914) is the domestic legislation that prohibits any ship in U.S. waters from disposing of plastics at sea. Plastics used at sea should be brought back to shore for recycling and other appropriate disposal.

Plastics are a convenient material found in most products that we use every day of our lives. Reducing marine debris, however, depends on improving our control of plastics. Through proper management by individuals and organizations, we can reduce the amount of plastics entering our oceans and conserve this valuable material.


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