What is Ocean-Bound Plastic? And Why it Matters...

What is ocean-bound plastic?

Ocean-bound plastic is plastic waste that could make its way into the ocean.

Jenna Jambeck Ph.D., an accredited professor from the University of Georgia, coined the term in 2015. She determined that the majority of ocean plastic originates within 50 kilometers of the coastline.

But just how much?

Of the 10+ million tons of plastic waste that enter the oceans each year, 80% of it is considered “ocean-bound."

Why is it a problem?

The world’s coastlines make up less than 2% of the entire land surface here on earth.

So why is ocean-bound plastic a problem?

25% of the world’s population lives on the coast

Despite occupying such a small area, the world’s coastlines are home to over 2 billion people.

Almost every major city or metropolitan area sits on a major river, lake, or ocean. These bodies of water support the city’s agricultural, trade, and utility needs.

Think about it – cities like Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai, Sao Paulo, and New York City are located on major bodies of water. Not to mention, these cities and local beaches are tourist hotspots, meaning even more waste.

And even if litter isn’t dropped straight into the ocean, plastic waste finds its way to the sea via tributaries, ports, and wastewater.

Poor recycling infrastructure

Recycling is an expensive, intensive process. And on average, it costs between $50 and $150 to recycle one metric ton of plastic.

The cost to recycle all of the plastic produced each year would range between $22 billion and $66 billion. That’s not exactly cheap.

So it’s understandable that many countries lack the necessary infrastructure to recycle waste.

Wealthy western nations ship their plastic waste to Southeast Asia

Remember how we said recycling was expensive? Well, not if you ship it overseas.

Countries like the United States, Canada, France, and the UK ship their waste to Southeast Asia to save money. This is because it’s so much cheaper to ship the problem away than actually process the waste.

Unfortunately, these wealthy western nations actually have the infrastructure to properly manage waste. But, they have a greater interest in saving money than protecting the planet.

As a result, Southeast Asia has a bad reputation. Countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia have become some of the most “heavily polluting” countries. But, much of the waste doesn’t belong to them.

They import the waste to support their economy but lack the infrastructure to properly manage the waste. As a result, waste management plants are overrun with plastic, which often finds its way into the ocean.

Why the term “ocean-bound” plastic is a bit misleading

As Jambeck indicated, not all plastic is ocean-bound by default. Only plastic waste that originates within 50 km of the coastline has this designation.

Despite this, companies use it as a buzzword to greenwash their destructive practices.

But, they’re not wrong.

Technically, every piece of plastic ever produced could eventually make its way into the ocean.

It never breaks down and there's no forcefield preventing plastic from inland areas from ending up in the ocean.

It’s entirely possible that a plastic bag could fall into the Mississippi River in St. Louis and manage to find its way into the ocean, even if it’s located over 500 miles from the nearest ocean.

And every single day, synthetic fibers are torn away from clothes in the laundry. These microplastic fibers are flushed into local waterways before ultimately making their way to the ocean.

And once it’s in the ocean, we know what happens there.

So where do we go from here?

It’s important to note that the scientific definition of ocean-bound plastic is plastic waste that could make its way into the ocean. And most of the time, it originates within 50 km of the coastline.

However, that doesn’t mean that plastic produced further inland is not a threat. Poor waste management infrastructure and overseas waste shipping threaten the ocean in more ways than one.

Unfortunately, all plastic has the potential to find its way into the ocean. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do more to prevent it from happening.

To reduce your impact, avoid single-use plastics, properly recycle all appropriate materials, and clean up any waste you find laying near the ocean.