9 Things You Can Do to Stop Ocean Plastic Pollution

Nearly 9 million tons of plastic trash ends up in the ocean every year. Here are some everyday ways you can help

Mandy Ferreira
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Plastic Pollution: The Dirty Truth

The amount of plastic littering our oceans is staggering. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enters coastal waters each year. In just 30 years there could be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean if we continue on the same path, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. As the trash piles up, our use of plastic has only been increasing—nearly half of all plastic ever made was manufactured in the past 20 years. Most plastic takes roughly 400 years to degrade, but it never fully decomposes. Instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. In other words, every plastic product ever made, from your grandmother’s toothbrush to every sandwich bag you’ve ever used, is still around. Today, there is more than a ton of plastic trash for every person Earth—all 7.4 billion of us. Plastic pollution is not just an eyesore and an annoyance for beach goers, it’s also dangerous for marine life. Animals frequently get caught in plastic trash or mistake it for food.
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Reduce Before You Recycle

Given that 91 percent of plastics are not recycled in the U.S., it seems like simply popping more of our waste into the blue bin is the obvious solution. While it’s definitely part of the answer, recycling alone isn’t enough, and it does little to reduce the amount of plastic created. Despite what we may think, plastic is not recycled like a glass bottle or aluminum can. Plastic is downcycled rather than recycled, which means it’s used to make a lower-quality material that most often cannot be reused again. Instead of your water bottle being turned into another beverage bottle, it’s shredded and formed into pellets that are used to make polyester or other materials like carpeting that will ultimately be sent to landfills. The answer is to consume less plastic, and luckily there’s plenty you can do right now to stop more plastic from piling up.
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Refuse Straws

Americans sip on millions of straws per day that are thrown away. Many wash into the oceans, where they end up ingested by wildlife or littering the sea floor. The good news is that plastic straws are completely unnecessary and easy to avoid. Simply ask your server or bartender for your drink sans straw. You can enjoy your beverage straight from the cup or bring your own reusable stainless steel or glass straw to sip on. Options range from regular to extra wide to make way for boba tea and thick smoothies.
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Ban the Bottle

Every minute, a whopping 1 million plastic bottles are bought across the globe. Because only 9 percent of plastic is recycled worldwide, the rest of those bottles end up in landfills, littering the landscape, or washed into the ocean. The caps are frequently eaten by marine life where they get stuck in the digestive tract and cause malnourishment or starvation. Avoid bottles altogether by using a reusable water bottle and filter your water at home or on the go with a plastic-free charcoal filter instead. The reusable, natural charcoal absorbs impurities like lead, mercury, and chlorine and leaves behind clean water without any unwanted taste.
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Bring Your Own Cup

A reusable cup can put a serious dent in your plastic waste. Disposable cups, even the paper ones, are lined with plastic, and most are topped with a lid that’s difficult to recycle. You don’t need anything fancy to make the switch. Any cup or jar will do, but we especially prefer an insulated tumbler with a lid, great for hot or cold beverages of any kind. Fill it up at the campsite, office, weekend barbeque, and local roaster. Forgot your cup? Ask for your beverage “for here” and drink it at the cafe.
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Skip the Plastic Produce Bags

You have your reusable grocery bags ready to go, but what about the produce? Most fruits and vegetables don’t need to be bagged to safely make it from your cart to your home. Anything that needs help being contained, like baby lettuce leaves or green beans, can be popped into a reusable produce bag. Once you get home, store produce in airtight containers, jars of water, or in reusable bags in the fridge. These organic cotton bags from Vejibag are moistened before filled and stowed to help keep veggies, even kale, fresh and crisp all week long.
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Replace Sandwich Bags and Plastic Wrap

Plastic baggies and cling wrap add up fast, both on your budget and in your trash can. There are plenty of sustainable products that make it easy to store and carry food without any waste. Bee’s Wrap is great for taking sandwiches to go, wrapping up cheese, and covering bowls. Swap reusable silicone bags for snack and freezer baggies, and store leftovers in repurposed jam jars or stainless steel containers to further reduce waste.
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Kiss Plastic Utensils and Take Out Containers Goodbye

In 2018, Malibu passed a law that bans stores and restaurants from giving out single-use plastic utensils, straws, and stirrers to help keep these items off the beach. No matter where you live, you can join in by encouraging your local city council to adopt a similar ban. In the meantime, opt for reusable utensils and containers like the ones in this kit from Bay Area-based Wild Minimalist to pack a lunch from home or enjoy take-out without creating any waste.
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Filter out Microfiber Plastic Pollution

Each time you wash your favorite pair of leggings or fleece sweater, it releases plastic microfibers into the water. Shockingly, these small synthetic fibers may be the biggest source of plastic in the ocean. Because of their size, these small fibers slip through wastewater treatment plants and end up in the oceans and waterways where they are nearly impossible to remove. Unlike natural fibers like wool or cotton, these synthetic fibers do not biodegrade, easily absorb harmful chemicals like pesticides, and are commonly eaten by plankton and fish. The fibers are so pervasive that they have been found in drinking water around the world, including in 94 percent of tap water tested in the U.S. according to a recent study from researchers at the University of Minnesota. So what can you do? Wear natural fibers, wash synthetic fabrics less often, and use a Guppyfriend wash bag or a filter on your washing machine to catch the fibers so they can be put in the trash.
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Shop in Bulk

Bring your own container or reusable bags and buy grains, nuts, and other items in the bulk section to avoid food packaging altogether. While San Franciscans are spoiled with Rainbow Grocery’s stellar selection of bulk foods like tofu and pasta, there are great bulk grocery stores around the West, and most large grocery chains across the country have a bulk section.
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Join a Cleanup

You don’t have to live near the beach to participate in a cleanup. Even inland trash can make its way into local waterways like rivers, creeks, and lakes or be washed downstream out to sea. Many groups like the Surfrider Foundation and local nonprofits organize cleanups around the West. Can’t wait for an organized event? Pick up a handful of trash on your next walk or head out with the Ocean Conservancy’s app to help track and record your efforts in the organization’s global ocean trash database.