A new interactive map has been developed that pinpoints the global culprits responsible for the plastic wasteland we have created out in the ocean. In happier news, the map has helped scientists and officials take huge leaps towards addressing the source, and halting its entry into our seas.

The Plastic Problem

Plastics wandering marine environments are not a new concern. Historically, plastic pollution originated from the now-banned discharge from deep sea vessels into the open ocean.

They have now become increasingly dangerous with the evolution of technology creating stronger, smaller, and more resilient plastics. Right now, more than 8 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean annually, with 80% of it coming from us on land. Plastics roam from the seabed to the surface, stretching from pole to pole, lapping coastlines to circulating at the center of the Pacific Ocean. Incidentally, marine wildlife in the Pacific now share their home with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of marine debris so tight that it can be walked on, spanning a surface area of ~1.6 million square kilometers—three times the size of France.

This waste is making marine environments increasingly vulnerable and drastically reducing how productive the ecosystem is capable of being. Aside from the choking and entanglement concerns for marine wildlife, most plastics are made with chemicals that become toxic when ingested. And when humans eat seafood, we take on these chemicals too. This movement up the food chain harms each and every organism it passes through, much like a disease.

Tackling The Problem

As with any disease, we need to determine the origin to help slow down its spread. The challenge for marine plastic is how to determine where the greatest sources of plastic dumping is so that efforts can be targeted. Right now it is kind of like we are just watching it happen, not knowing how to stop it. Through the midst of 2020, an intervention to do just this was born. Together with its partners, the World Wide Fund for Nature Germany (WWF) compiled a world map that showcases this massive problem of marine plastic pollution. This map is a live visualization of plastic waste with an interactive format that accommodates for real-time updates. It also gives a great and detailed overview of where the biggest threats are and our progress on mitigating these.

The Map

Through the freely accessible Global Plastic Navigator, we are invited to open the map and its varying layers and witness where the plastic hotspots currently live. We are able to flip through the filters to see where plastic floats around with the surfers in the top layer, and where it dives deeper to antagonize corals. This layering view also sums up where plastic sea waste comes from, and where plastics are poorly disposed of, threatening the ocean with its arrival. The technical details of how this map has been put together are fascinating, spanning continents and more than 120 polluted rivers across the globe.

The interactive nature of the map is essential to the plastic problem because of how dynamic and resilient the substance is when it enters a water source. One plastic bottle will dance with currents, flip in and out of drainage systems, float with the wind, and rush along with rain relentlessly, building up and taking residence in rivers for its expedition to the ocean. With most natural debris that travels a similar path, it is broken down, providing a nutritional source to a variety of organisms along the way. But with plastic, herein lies its deus ex machina: its absolute refusal to biodegrade.

An important description is required here. In that plastic is indeed capable of degrading; it does so with great damage caused through the digestive tracts of organisms that encounter it. However, it does not become reabsorbed and used back in life cycle processes as with organic matter. Plastic is made up of a mixture of die-hard chemicals, so their degradation process means that these chemicals are leached into whatever landscape it inhabits at the time. This is why you should not drink from a plastic water bottle that has been left out in the sun for too long. The chemical composition of the water inside it has fundamentally changed, altered by the leech from the surrounding bottle. Microplastics are an enormous contributor to this problem in our oceans. Defined as fragments of any type of plastic less than 5 mm in length and are regarded as silent killers to aquatic creatures. They enter natural ecosystems from a variety of sources, including cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes.

The Great Reveal

To ocean lovers and greenies, the map is a tool worthy of popping a bottle. It enables scientists to turn the latest scientific data into an image that speaks at top volume to the everyday citizen like you and me. In this way we are thrust with this image of what our extra plastic straw contributes to, even in the tiniest way. The Project Coordinator for Plastic Waste at WWF Germany said that this map was designed to help us and higher-level decision makers respond to this problem that has been leering out in the ocean away from our line of sight.

In response to the map and its great reach, an international plastics agreement is in the pipeline that will fundamentally stop the flow of plastic waste into our precious ocean environments. And, by clicking over to the map, we can see which countries have responded and which need an extra public push. For which we can totally assist!

How To Help

Although a monumental task to tackle, the existence of this map and the response of people all across the globe shines through that there is indeed reason for hope. WWF is just one of many initiatives out there, diving in daily and doing the work to make the difference that is so needed right now. Recycling ambassadors like your mum and that one colleague in your office are an integral part of this difference. It may seem daunting to haul your entire home waste system at once, but just starting with following your correct local waste protocol on recycling that bit of plastic helps. Even though this concept seems like a stretch, I assure you, it really, really does. Over time, an entire city of people recycling that little bit of plastic will greatly reduce that giant patch in our ocean. Individual choices are too important to be overlooked. You are a part of a much larger system, so it should be obvious that your actions have significant results, and can sometimes even be dangerous. Not only does reducing waste and paying attention to local initiatives influence policy, behavioral changes and the discussions that follow are paramount to catalyzing change.

Awesome Organizations To Follow

There are so many entities doing great things for the ocean, in different forms and through different mechanisms. Some involve first-time volunteers to just go on a walk to their local beach, pick up what should not be there, and dispose of the waste correctly. When you post pictures of this process, tagging the organization, project, or person that originally inspired you, the message goes a lot further than you think! Check out these wonderful organizations below to see just some of what is being done to rid the seas of all of our unwanted waste: The Ocean Cleanup, Sea Change Project, 4ocean, Plastic Bank, and 5 Gyres.