For World Oceans Day, we pay extra attention to one of the most urgent threats to our oceans: plastic. How bad is the ‘plastic soup’, actually, and haven’t we been working on cleaning it up for years now? Oceanographer Erik van Sebille and student Aike Vonk have developed the website uu.nl/plasticsoep (in Dutch) to help answer these questions. What do you actually know about all of the plastic floating in our oceans? Time to debunk seven myths about plastic soup.
1. Whole islands of plastic are floating around the ocean
False. The term ‘plastic soup’ refers to all of the plastic polluting the ocean: from plastic bags floating near the surface, to micro- and nano-plastics dissolved in the seawater. But the plastic pollution doesn’t form large islands that float around the ocean - on the contrary: less than 1% of all of the plastic in the ocean is still floating on the surface. Much more of the plastic can be found deeper in the ocean, or sunk on the ocean floor. So instead of plastic islands, it’s more like a ‘plastic bouillon’.
2. Fortunately, we’ve already started cleaning up the plastic soup
Unfortunately, false. Many people are focused on collecting the plastic floating in the ocean, including the Ocean Clean-up project by Boyan Slat. These are admirable efforts, but floating plastic represents less than 1% of all of the plastic in the ocean. The other 99% of the plastic soup receives far less attention.
3. Biodegradable plastic is the solution to the plastic problem
False. Biodegradable plastic may seem like a solution, because if it decomposes in nature, it cannot wash from the land into the oceans. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Biodegradable plastic can usually only be broken down through exposure to large amounts of light, oxygen, and heat. These conditions are anything but ‘natural’, especially in the ocean. That means even biodegradable plastic can remain in the ocean for a very long time.