The most visible impacts of plastic waste are the ingestion, asphyxiation and entanglement of hundreds of marine species. Marine wildlife, such as seabirds, whales, fish and turtles, mistake plastic waste for prey; most die of hunger when their stomachs are filled with plastic. The European Space Agency even uses its satellites to track plastic waste from space, hoping to inform new policies that limit plastic pollution. Once consumed by animals, ingested plastic can puncture internal organs or cause fatal intestinal obstructions; it also causes starvation, because a stomach full of plastic gives the animal the illusion of being full.
Because plastic is such a persistent material, the ecological, economic and ecotoxicological effects of plastic pollution are all long-term. Abandoned fishing nets and plastic longlines, known as ghost gear, are also an important source, since they represent around 10% of plastic waste in the sea. Estimates suggest that there could be more than 5 trillion individual pieces of plastic floating in the ocean. Beaches full of single-use soda bottles and takeaway containers; rivers full of plastic bags and cups; microplastics found in the deepest parts of the ocean.
However, despite the magnitude of this problem, global plastic production continues, putting the oceans at increasing risk. Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental problems, as the rapid increase in the production of disposable plastic products exceeds the world's capacity to address them. Up to 13 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean every year, threatening marine ecosystems and the people who depend on them. It is estimated that up to 13 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, the equivalent of what a load of garbage or garbage truck is worth per minute.
One of the concerns is that plastics from the ocean eventually degrade into nanoplastics, which are so small that they could enter human cells when consumed. A Dutch company called The Ocean Cleanup has invented a huge floating pen that extracts plastic waste from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.