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How does plastic end up in the ocean?

September 1, 2022

How does plastic end up in the ocean?

As both companies and consumers alike become more aware of the environmental impacts of plastic waste, there has been a push to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics. However, despite these efforts, an estimated 8 to 10 million tons of plastic still pollute our oceans yearly.

So how does plastic end up in the ocean? As our dependency on plastic has increased, so has the amount of plastic waste we generate. And unfortunately, most plastic waste is not correctly disposed of and ends up in our environment, where it can eventually make its way into our oceans.

Plastic pollution in the ocean

Plastic is one of the most ubiquitous materials in the world. It’s used to make everything from water bottles and grocery bags to car parts and medical equipment. However, plastic also poses a serious threat to marine wildlife. In fact, thousands of animals are killed or injured yearly after ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic waste.

In addition to harming individual animals, plastic pollution can also have devastating impacts on entire ecosystems. For example, when leatherback sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them, they can suffer digestive blockages and starvation. This leads to population decline and puts whole communities at risk.

But the impact of plastic pollution is not just limited to wildlife – it also threatens human health. And while people may be aware of the plastic problem in the oceans, few realize how it affects them directly. For example, as the amount of plastic in the oceans increases, so does the amount of microplastics found there.

These tiny, indetectable pieces of plastic are ingested by marine life and eventually end up in the seafood we eat. Once consumed, emerging evidence suggests that microplastics are detrimental to our health. Studies have found that microplastics in our bodies can cause an enhanced inflammatory response, gastrointestinal problems, and reproductive issues.

Main ways plastic ends up in the oceans

Over 96% of Earth’s water exists in the oceans, making it the final resting place for much of the plastic waste we generate. There are many ways in which this pollution can enter the oceans, but the three primary sources are:

Waste mismanagement

The biggest culprit for plastic ending up in the ocean is improper waste disposal. Every year, millions of tons of discarded plastics are sent to landfill sites worldwide. And while some of this plastic is appropriately contained, a significant amount still ends up in our environment.

Direct dumping/littering

Another major source of ocean plastic pollution is littering. This can happen when people intentionally or unintentionally throw the trash into the water or when strong winds blow litter from land into the ocean. Cigarette butts, plastic bags, and food wrappers are some of the most commonly found items of ocean litter.

Industrial spills and leaks

Much of the plastic used in production ends up in the ocean due to industrial accidents and spills. These can happen during transporting, storing, or processing plastic products. For example, millions of plastic pellets, or nurdles, find their way into our waterways from production sites annually.

Leakage in Southeast Asia

As of 2022, the largest source of ocean plastic pollution comes from the continent of Asia. In this region, many countries don’t have the infrastructure to properly contain and dispose of their plastic waste. As a result, large quantities are dumped into rivers and eventually reach the ocean.

  • China: China is the world’s leading source of mismanaged plastic waste and the worst ocean pollution offender. China produced roughly 60 million tons of plastic waste in 2020, yet only about 16 million were recycled correctly.
  • Indonesia: After China, Indonesia is the next biggest source of ocean plastic pollution. It’s estimated that the country contributes more than 600,000 of the 8 million tons of plastics dumped into the ocean annually.
  • The Philippines:  As the third-largest source of ocean plastic, the Philippines contributes an estimated 0.75 million tons of leakage each year.
  • Vietnam: Every year, Vietnam contributes between 0.28 – 0.73 million tons of plastic leakage to the ocean.
  • Thailand:  Thailand is the fifth-largest source of ocean plastic in Southeast Asia, contributing an estimated 428,000 million tons of uncollected plastic waste yearly.

What can be done about it?

Now that we’re aware of the problem, we can begin work to correct it. Unfortunately, solutions to ocean plastic pollution are complex and require a global effort. But, here are a few ways we can all help to reduce this growing problem:

Reduce plastic use

Not surprisingly, the most effective way to reduce ocean plastic pollution is to curb our use of plastic products and prevent it from reaching the ocean in the first place. This can be done by:

  • Refusing single-use plastic items such as straws, cups, and bags
  • Opting for reusable items instead of disposable ones
  • Purchasing products that come without packaging or with minimal packaging
  • Supporting businesses that work to reduce their plastic footprint
  • Explore other options for disposable items such as cloth diapers and hygiene products

Proper waste management infrastructure

As mentioned, improper waste management is one of the leading causes of ocean plastic pollution. To address this, we need to invest in better infrastructure for waste management, such as:

  • Improving waste collection and management in developing countries
  • Ensuring that landfill sites are adequately managed
  • Encouraging recycling and composting
  • Creating incentives for businesses to reduce their plastic waste
  • Public education and awareness


While plastic waste is undoubtedly a problem, it does present a unique opportunity for local communities to earn a living by recycling and repurposing it into new products. Collecting and selling recyclable plastic waste can provide a supplemental income source while also helping keep plastic out of the environment.

How does plastic end up in the ocean?

Every day, humans produce tons of plastic waste, and much of it eventually ends up in the ocean. Significant causes of ocean plastic pollution include waste mismanagement, direct dumping, and industrial spills. Sadly, the effects of plastic pollution are devastating to both marine life and humans. However, we’re finding ways to combat this problem by reducing our use of plastic products and improving waste management infrastructure worldwide.

At Second Life, we’re committed to doing our part to protect our oceans by empowering companies like yours to reduce their environmental footprint through the use of plastic credits. Check out our plastic collection and recycling projects here to learn more about the difference we’re making.