Plastic bags are officially the greatest ocean pollutant of all time, and we don't discuss it nearly enough.

The record has been standing since (at the very least) 2016. That means that, in almost a decade, things might have improved but are far from being solved.

According to IUCN, "14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments."

Of that total, a lot of the plastic comes specifically from rivers. “It is estimated that 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic are entering the ocean each year from rivers,” writes The Ocean Cleanup

And, although plastic might be the ultimate record holder for this ominous record, it’s easy to identify the real problem: us.

Water and plastic bottles

The first thing to keep in mind when talking about ocean pollution and floating plastic is that plastic waste doesn’t degrade completely. 

Most of the pollutant agents photo-degrade and reduce their size, but their existence (known as microplastics) remains incredibly dangerous for the environment and the flora and fauna that inhabits the oceans. 

Some of the main dangers for marine species are entanglement (marine life gets caught in plastic debris, leftover fishing gear or debris thrown in the ocean) and accidental ingestion – which can cause suffocation or poisoning. 

Although a lot of plastic residues are due to fishing gear, finding everyday items is more likely than you might think.

According to the National Ocean Service, the most common form of plastic pollution suffocating our waters other than plastic bags are cigarette butts, food wrappers, plastic bottles, straws and single-use plastic cups and plates. 

Although many countries are already taking action against single-use cutlery and plastic straws, moving on to reusable items can make a big difference.

Careless waste disposal remains a huge issue to this day, and it leads to irreversible damage to our oceans.

Seal sleeping on fishing gear

Without doubt, one of the most recognizable results of human-made pollution in the ocean is the area of the North Pacific Central Gyre, located in the northern Pacific Ocean, which holds the grim records as the largest oceanic "garbage patch"

Also dubbed the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” this vast vortex causes marine debris to naturally converge in its core.

The total size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the subject of ongoing debate. Despite being undoubtedly the largest accumulation of debris in the world, since the area has no fixed boundaries and the density of the litter varies among the zones, it has been difficult to estimate its overall surgace. 

However, it's estimated that it expands for over 1.6 million square kilometres.

That’s roughly the same size as Texas and six times the UK. In comparison, it's also more than three times the extension of Spain, which measures 498,980 square km.

As of 2022, studies disclosed that the majority of the pollution (mostly plastic bottles and household appliances) led to only five countries.

Ben with a piece of plastic in hand

Between 14 June and 31 August 2019, French long-distance swimmer Ben Lecomte set a new record by swimming a distance of 338 nautical miles (626 km; 389 mi) through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (also knows as "GPGP"). 

That set the longest-distance stage swim through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as Lecomte's attempt spanned from Honolulu, Hawaii to San Francisco, California. 

The attempt was part of a project named the “Vortex Swim”. 

The long-distance swim aimed to draw attention to plastic waste, whilst also conducting scientific research by sampling some of the debris Lecomte collected in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

Lecomte and his team, aboard the support vessel I Am Ocean, could then study some of the micro and macroplastics present in the area. 

However, despite its massive size, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch represents only a tiny amount of the waste that gets dumped every day into our oceans.

seagull with a plastic packaging

Recycling: Yes, but…

…Let's be honest: there is no but when it comes to recycling.

Reducing the impact that our species has on the planet, and especially on the ocean, is a communal duty that we are all called to partake in. 

There’s no such thing as "not making a difference": every contribution, ever tiny step matters in the fight against pollution.

However, recycling is not always as effective as we would like. 

Each pollutant takes a different amount of time to be recycled or dismantled (which is often high and in the case of some non-biodegradable materials, such as glass, simply not possible). Compostable plastic doesn't vanish in the air, and the rubbish we produce every day and recycle doesn't automatically dissolve into nothingness without consequences.

“Human-made products are not completely biodegradable,” says Ocean Service

As plastic doesn't decompose, the recycling and degradation of this material often results in what is called microplastics.

Plastic pollution in water

As the name suggests, microplastics are tiny, almost invisible plastic particles measuring less than 5 millimetres. 

Highly damaging to the environment and plaguing our waters, they are commonly divided in two kinds:

  • Primary microplastics: these are often found in cosmetics and textiles. These are tiny to begin with and extremely difficult to dismantle. 
  • Secondary microplastics: these particles result from the breakdown of bigger objects, like takeaway containers and water bottles, due to ocean waves and UV damage.

Although they reach our waters in different ways, both types of microplastics are a rising threat to our environment. 

Today with more urgency than ever, the many issues caused by microplastic need to be addressed.

“I think about the manatees that are dying because there’s not enough seagrass for them to eat, or the kids who suffer because microplastics have affected their gut health,"  said Merle, the record-breaking eco mermaid. 

In an effort to help the community, Merle (who broke the record for farthest swim with a monofin) collects the garbage she finds in the ocean whenever she's swimming.

Two members of Saving the Ocean clean a shore in Indonesia

What can we do? 

From participating in clean-ups to little everyday adjustments such as recycling, avoiding one-use containers or being mindful of litter and of the resources we use, there are plenty of things we can do every day to reduce our environmental impact. 

Firmly keeping an eye on the environment, Guinness World Records 2024 revolves around the beauty and marvellous secrets of our blue planet. 

In fact, the "Blue Planet" is the theme chosen for the 2024 edition of our book.

From pirates to the wonders of the sea, from incredible marine species to brave scientists exploring the depth of the ocean, this year we encourage the readers to take a splurge and discover more marine records. 

Find out more about the new Guinness World Records 2024, available in store and online from September 2023, here.

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