Navigating through plastic: ocean health adrift

Oceanic health is being compromised by a proliferation of waste. The main culprit? Plastic.
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“Without water, our planet would be one of the billions of lifeless rocks floating endlessly in the vastness of the inky-black void,” said the ocean explorer Fabien Cousteau. The grandson of the famous explorer Jacques Cousteau was not without reason. The health of the oceans is closely linked to the health of nature as a whole.

Oceans are the cornerstone that humanity needs to maintain our lives, homes and food. In fact, in 2010, the UN described water as a human right. Without oceans to sustain the water cycle and create fresh, breathable air, we wouldn’t exist at all.

What will I learn from this article?


Why is the health of the oceans important?

infographic plastic in the seaOceans are the wellspring from which drinks biodiversity stretching across the Earth. They are why we call our home The Blue Marble. Do you know the story behind that nickname? We explain it here.

“The UN named water as a human right in 2010”

Our health and wellbeing depends on the health of the oceans and seas. They are an important source of food and jobs, essential for the rest of the ecosystems, and home to a large percentage of the planet’s biodiversity, among other functions.

During the celebration of Human Rights Day on 10 December 2021, Leticia Carvalho, Head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Marine and Freshwater Branch, set out 5 reasons why a clean, healthy ocean was necessary for fulfilling human rights related to a sustainable environment.


5 reasons why we should care for the health of the oceans


  • The ocean is our vital support system: a third of the world population, nearly 2.4 billion people, live less than 100km from an ocean. To be able to survive, we depend on the oxygen and freshwater oceans produce in accordance with the seas and water cycle.
  • Oceans provide food, jobs and the means to live: it is estimated that oceans are responsible for generating USD 2.5 billion a year, equivalent to the world’s 7th biggest economy. From these great masses of water, we extract natural resources that permit us to feed ourselves, develop medicines and produce renewable energy. They are also a source of jobs in the fishing and leisure industries and science. To ensure this continues, we must only fish sustainably and cease from over-exploiting natural resources.
  • Oceans help slow down climate change: vital ecosystems such as swamps, sea grasses and saltmarshes can help us by storing more than 1.4 billion tonnes of carbon emissions per year by 2050 if we protect and clean them.
  • They are home to most of the planet’s biodiversity: according to the Convention on Biological Diversity, habitats at the bottom of the oceans alone host between 500,000 and 10 million species. It is difficult to know how many for certain, since around 80% of the ocean remains unexplored and 91% of marine species have not yet been discovered.
  • Oceans provide wellbeing to all humanity: throughout our entire history, the ocean has formed part of the myths and legends that make up our common story as a species. It has been a source of inspiration and the focus of innumerable works of art, songs and poems. The cultural role of the ocean is undeniable. Indeed, UNEP is working with the gaming industry to raise more awareness about oceans.


What is the current state of play?

What do the deepest oceanic point on Earth, the Mariana Trench, and the highest summit, Mount Everest, have in common?

Although they are the two of the most remote and inaccessible places on the planet, both contain tiny particles of plastic originating from human activities.

Plastic has been present in the ocean for many years, forming part of coastal landscapes and settling at depths in the oceans that even humans have not yet reached.

A recent study by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) shows that plastic pollution of the oceans has increased significantly in recent years. And the forecasts are not at all encouraging. The amount is predicted to double before 2030.

Plastics represent at least 85% of total ocean waste and biodiversity is suffering from this tide of garbage. Sea turtles mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish and slowly starve as they fill their stomachs with waste they cannot digest.

whale in a bottleMarine mammals and other animals can drown after becoming trapped in drifting, discarded plastic such as packaging or fishing gear. The same happens to coral reefs, which die buried under piles of submerged waste.


“Plastics represent at least 85% of total ocean waste”

Toxins containing plastics also transfer to the ocean food chain as sea species eat one another, reaching people through the fish and seafood in our diets. Microplastics have been found in our lungs, livers, spleens and kidneys, and a study recently detected them in the placenta of newborns.

Not to mention the plastics in the ocean negatively affecting the capacity of innumerable ecosystems to provide basic ecosystem services human beings enjoy and assume as normal. Benefits that go from clean water, fishing, natural pest and disease control, climate regulation, cultural heritage and recreational activities.


Measures to reestablish oceanic health

The problem of ocean pollution requires immediate and sustainable action. “Breaking the Plastic Wave”, a global analysis of how to change the trajectory of plastic waste, reveals that we can reduce the quantity of plastic in the ocean by around 80% over the next two decades just by using existing technologies and solutions:

The Ocean Cleanup: a static collection megastructure which would only need 10 years to clean up all the plastic in the Pacific Ocean. It traps the plastic so that it can be later collected, recycled and processed.


In-No-Plastic: a project under which a range of technologies is being developed to take care not only of big pieces of plastic, but also small microplastics and even the tiniest nanoplastics.

AQUA-LIT: tackling plastics pollution from the viewpoint of prevention and reduction of ocean waste, as well as its extraction and recycling. The project includes tools for monitoring where the waste comes from so that it can employ strategies that reduce it at source.

“We can reduce the quantity of plastic in the ocean by around 80% over the next two decadesAlthough the amount of ocean plastic we have to tackle is so large it is difficult to fully comprehend the global situation, science tells us that most solutions we need already exist. But the size of the problem demands urgent commitments and actions at global level throughout the whole plastic life cycle – from origin to disposal at sea – if we are to achieve a reduction of waste and plastics in the ocean.