How does Plastic End Up in Our Oceans?

Have you ever wondered how plastic ends up in our oceans in the first place? Do coastal communities use so much plastic that it generates a lot of marine litter? And what about the rest of the population who live inland? Where does their plastic waste go?

In this blog, we shall find out how our oceans became so polluted and what we can all do to mitigate this growing problem.


An estimated 150 million metric tons of plastic waste are in the ocean today, with 8 million metric tons added every year. This makes up 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments.

Economic prosperity, fast-paced development, and a fall in crude oil prices hint at increased production of plastic and consequently, more plastic waste entering our oceans.

Though all the countries rely on plastic and generate plastic waste, few developing and under-developed countries are accountable for a majority of the plastic pollution due to bad practices in managing plastic waste.


After a plastic product life cycle is complete, they end up in the sea under various circumstances. These are:


Food and drink packaging, household items, clothing, construction materials are common culprits in land-based sources of plastic objects.

Effective waste collection and management infrastructure can help mitigate this problem.


Most plastic does end up in landfills. Advanced nations have the reliable infrastructure to segregate plastic according to its grade and take it forward for recycling or generating energy by incineration.

Unfortunately, the same is not the case with developing countries. Because of waste mismanagement rules and dismal regulations, they struggle with waste collection and recycling infrastructure. In such cases, plastic abandoned in open landfills makes its way into waterways.


Cigarette butts, food packaging, and beverage bottles strewn on the beaches easily get picked up by the wind and ocean tides.


In this case, plastic waste is dumped illegally by the roadside, open fields or portside, eventually spilling into waterways and floating downstream with time.


The most effective way to fight plastic pollution is to stop it from entering the ocean from the river, urban and storm runoffs, and sewer overflows. There are thousands of rivers flowing into the sea every day. This perpetual process carries all the plastic pollutants into the sea.

How does plastic enter the rivers from land? Here are some of the most important factors:

  1. Poor local waste management practices
  2. Distance between the point of waste generation and the river network
  3. Annual precipitation in the river basin
  4. Floods
  5. Wind
  6. Artificial structures like dams which gather plastic flowing downstream and act as sinks for macroplastics
  7. Type of landscape between the location of plastic waste and the nearest river – paved surfaces in urban areas help both water and plastic to drain into the river
  8. The slope of the terrain
  9. The proximity of a population to the river or coastline

To provide a scale of the problem that we are currently facing, have a look at the riverine plastic emission from some of the largest polluting rivers.

To solve the problem of marine plastic littering our oceans, we need to nip the problem in its bud. This means stopping riverine plastic emissions at all costs.



The lack of rules and regulations in the high seas outside international borders has given the fishing industry free rein to pollute our oceans. They frequently abandon fishing nets in the sea that turn into a nightmare for marine life. Called ghost nets, they entangle unsuspecting creatures like sharks, turtles, dolphins, and other creatures who are not the intended catch.

Also, fishing nets are made of nylon which breakdown over time to form microplastic.

According to Businesswire, the global seafood market will reach USD 138.7 billion by 2027. More seafood fishing means more plastic waste generated.


There is a lot of dependency on plastic in this industry like pond liners, piping, insulated polystyrene boxes, nets, feed bags, buckets, and even small plastic containers from food supplements.

Artificial ponds are built for the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of fish and other organisms near oceans, lakes, or streams for easy access to water.

There is a high probability of plastic used in aquaculture seeping into the surrounding environment.


  • The usual mantra of ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’ of plastic items will always hold good. We need to reduce our dependency on virgin plastics to have less plastic waste generated in the first place.
  • Significant strides can be made in reducing plastic waste from entering the ocean if ocean-bound plastic can be captured and recycled to create plastic products. This helps in slowly reducing the dependency on virgin plastic.
  • There is a dire need for stringent plastic waste disposal infrastructure in developing and underdeveloped countries to prevent riverine plastic emissions. Strict enforcement is key.
  • Big corporations that use and produce plastic must be given the responsibility for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products under the latest Extended Producer Responsibility guidelines.
  • No matter how small or seemingly insignificant the effort seems, a beach cleanup makes a lot of positive difference if done continuously. In fact, International Coastal Cleanup™ (ICC) has collected more than 340 million pounds of trash over the past 35 years.
  • Setting up traps to capture plastic trash at river mouths helps contain the problem. Though this method requires a lot of maintenance, it is a good trade-off given the quantity of plastic it can capture, especially in the rainy season.
  • Proper disposal of plastic waste is the duty of a responsible citizen. The government must improve waste collection schemes and ensure outdoor areas are free of plastic waste to prevent plastic from entering waterways.
  • Persuade large corporations, especially FMCG, food, and cosmetic brands to use recycled plastic in their packaging. A lot of companies have begun using ocean-bound plastics in their products which signals a positive change.

We, at Plastics For Change, are trying to reduce plastic pollution by actively collecting ocean-bound plastic from littering our oceans. The plastic that is recovered is used to make new plastic packaging material that brands can use to sell their products.

What other ways can we reduce plastic from polluting our oceans? Please let us know in the comments below.

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