Breaking Down Plastic Facts and Myths for Earth Day

Posted Mon, 04/22/2024 - 09:27

Happy Earth Day from the NOAA Marine Debris Program! This week, also known as Earth Week, is centered around the theme of “Planet vs. Plastic”. As the U.S. Federal government’s lead for addressing marine debris, we compiled everything you need to know about plastic and its effects on the planet. There is a lot of information out there and we are “breaking down” some facts and common myths about plastic and marine debris. 

FACT: Plastic is the most abundant type of marine debris in our ocean, Great Lakes, and waterways.

Plastic is made from synthetic or human-made organic compounds containing carbon, often made with petroleum, and can come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. There are seven common types of plastic. It is a flexible, lightweight, and inexpensive material that is used in products from food and beverage packaging and food ware, to electronics, construction materials, medical supplies, fishing gear, and clothing. 

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A wave crashing on shore into a pile of marine debris.
A wave crashing on shore into a pile of marine debris (Photo: Parilov via Adobe Stock).

FACT: Microplastics are small plastic pieces or fibers that are smaller than 5 mm in size, or about the size of a pencil eraser and smaller. 

There are many different types of microplastics, including beads, fragments, pellets, film, foam, and fibers. Microplastics are found throughout the ocean, from tropical waters to polar ice, fresh water, and the air we breathe. They have even been found in tap and bottled water, sea salt, and other products we eat or drink.

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MYTH: There is a solid island of plastic in the ocean that is visible from space.

Many people believe that there is a floating island of trash in the Pacific Ocean. Although the Great Pacific Garbage Patch exists, the word “patch” is misleading, because in reality it is more like pepper flakes swirling in a soup with debris accumulating on the surface and all the way to the ocean floor. The debris ranges in size, from large abandoned fishing nets to tiny microplastics, spread out over large distances.

A color blocked infographic that explains the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is more like a "peppery soup" than a solid island of plastic in the ocean (Photo: Dottedyeti via Adobe Stock).

FACT: Plastic marine debris comes from people. 

Plastic marine debris comes from people and can enter our waterways, ocean, and Great Lakes in many ways from activities on land and at sea. Land-based marine debris comes from human activities that take place on land, while ocean-based marine debris comes from trash, fishing gear, and other items lost off of vessels or platforms at sea. When a storm, natural disaster, or accident at sea creates large amounts of marine debris, this is called disaster debris, and can include abandoned vessels or pieces of buildings.

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MYTH: 80% of plastic marine debris comes from activities on land, 20% comes from activities at sea.

Marine debris is a global problem and can enter the environment from activities that take place around the world on land, at sea, or through disasters. However, the percentage of where and how these items are introduced into the environment is unclear.  Although we may not know the exact location where a marine debris item comes from,

we can all be a part of the solution!
An infographic that explains how marine debris is introduced into the environment.
Marine debris can enter the environment from activities that take place on land, at sea, or through disasters (Photos: NOAA).

MYTH: It takes hundreds of years for plastic to break down and go away. 

Although you may hear that it takes hundreds of years for some items to degrade, there are many different factors that can cause an item to break down quickly, or not at all! Exposure to sunlight, water, microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi, and algae, the temperature of the environment, the amount of oxygen, and the location of an item can all contribute to how marine debris breaks down. Because plastics can come in so many different forms and with so many additives, it can be even more difficult to understand how long something made of plastic takes to degrade. In fact, some plastics may fragment into tinier and tinier pieces, and never fully go away.

A color blocked infographic that explains how long it takes for plastic to break down.
It is hard to understand how long it takes for plastic to break down because it comes in many forms (Photo: NOAA).

FACT: Plastic marine debris can cause problems for people, ecosystems, and our economy.

Plastic marine debris can impact wildlife by damaging habitats, entangling animals, and through ingestion. Some marine debris can even “pick up” hitchhikers and transport non-native species. The health of the environment is crucial for the health of our economy, as dirty beaches affect tourism and recreation. Watch TRASH TALK: Impacts of Marine Debris to understand more of why we need to keep our ocean and Great Lakes free of marine debris!

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MYTH: Most plastic waste is recycled. 

Recycling is one of the many solutions to the plastic problem. However, only a small percentage of plastic waste is recycled. From the most recent Environmental Protection Agency recycling report that was released in 2020 and uses data from 2018, the United States produced 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste and about 24% of that waste was recycled. Specifically, the United States produced 35 million tons of plastic waste and only 8.7% of that was ultimately recycled. It is important to note that cardboard, paper, glass, metal etc. have higher rates of recycling. The best solution to the plastic problem is reducing, reusing, and refusing! Learn more about the suite of solutions and how you can help.

A color blocked infographic that explains how much plastic waste was recycled in 2018 from the United States.
Recycling is one of many solutions to the plastic problem (Photo: Farknot Architect via Adobe Stock).

Understanding plastic and the problems that this material poses for our environment is an important way to increase stewardship for our planet. Every day is Earth Day as we work together to keep our planet free from plastic and our seas free from debris! Learn more about how to help.