Plastic pollution in the oceans, (spoiler alert) it's not great

Its extensive industrial use means plastic is everywhere in our daily lives, but it's also in our oceans... and leaving ecological devastation in its wake. Analysis and solutions.

Plastic pollution in the oceans: immersion

Oceans cover 71% of our planet's surface. They are extraordinary sources of biodiversity and play a major role in our lives and societies, but are now threatened by plastic pollution. A World Economic Forum study estimates that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. How did we get here? What are the consequences of all this pollution?  Where are the alternatives to "everything plastic"? Let's get to the heart of the matter together.

What is plastic?

We hear about plastic all the time. But what is it, really? The word "plastic" comes from the Greek "plastikos", meaning "able to be moulded". The primary property of this material is therefore its high degree of malleability.
Plastic is also light, waterproof and, above all, inexpensive. These characteristics rapidly led to the material being used extensively: bottles, packaging, equipment, tools, toys... plastic is used in everything! See for yourself: look at the all the objects around you... crazy, isn't it?

Plastic pollution in the oceans: immersion

What causes plastic pollution?

Today, it's estimated that 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced each year. Overuse of the material over the past 60 years, combined with how long it takes it to deteriorate - over 4 centuries! — leads to the pollution of our environment, especially the oceans. Just think, 10% of the world's annual production of plastic ends up in the oceans. And only 12% of the mass produced is incinerated, so the rest is still out there somewhere...

How do plastics pollute the oceans?

Despite this, we feel like we're doing things right: we dispose of packaging in the bin, we sort it when we can… So how is plastic ending up in the oceans? According to the association Surfrider Foundation Europe, 80% of the waste in the oceans comes from inland: illegal dumping, industrial plastic pellet spillage, littering along roads, etc. Rivers and waterways then carry it all to the ocean. 10% comes from marine activities and their participants: fishing, recreational activities, shipping. Another 10% is waste left behind by beachgoers.

Plastic pollution in the oceans: immersion

While there is a lot of focus on plastic water bottles, there are actually 3 forms of plastic in the oceans:
Macroplastics: shapes larger than 5 millimetres (such as bottles)
Microplastics: shapes smaller than 5 millimetres (such as small polystyrene beads)
Nanoplastics: forms smaller than 1 nanometre (particles invisible to the naked eye)

So we've got visible pollution (which is, obviously, not great...) and invisible pollution (which might just be worse!). 

Plastic pollution in the oceans: immersion

The plastics contained in textiles, such as polyester, shed some of their composition - and therefore some of their plastic - when machine washed. Microfibre shedding occurs when the water is drained from the machine. Which means these materials are released directly into the oceans.

Where is the great ocean garbage patch?

Until recently, there was talk of a 7th continent... of plastic. This patch of waste clumping together and drifting on the surface of the oceans is a myth. There are in fact 5 major ocean areas in the world where plastic microparticles (this is obviously not better). The effect of currents keeps them clumped together and stagnate there between the water's surface and up to 30 metres down.

Which means you can't really see them from a distance. Each ocean actually has its own plastic continent: The North Pacific — the largest garbage patch —, the North Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, and the South Pacific and Atlantic.

Plastic pollution in the oceans: immersion

What are the consequences of plastic pollution in the oceans? 

This is where things go from bad to worse. These tiny particles of plastic scattered throughout the oceans have many consequences. They are easily ingested by fish and other marine life. 200 species are thought to be at risk of extinction because of this.

In addition to the disastrous impact on sea life, the problem also extends to our plates, because we eat these fish and so also the plastic inside them.

Finally, there are also economic repercussions. Threatened and displaced/destroyed by plastic, there are fewer and fewer fish. Maritime and fishing industries are consequently directly impacted.

The consequences also extent to our leisure activities, tourism and our favourite playgrounds: beaches closed to the public because of water toxicity or because they look like rubbish dumps; boat motors damaged by bags getting caught in propellers...

Plastic pollution in the oceans: immersion

What solutions could be used to reduce plastic pollution in the oceans? 

Having painted such a grim picture, let's talk "solutions". The good news is that possibilities already exist!
Efforts to rid the oceans of plastic particles are currently being pursued. Athletes are often the source of this.

The SeaCleaners
One notable example launched by famed skipper Yvan Bourgnon is the Manta project, a processing ship designed clean up the water. There is also the Ocean Clean'up floating barrier developed by Boyan Slat, a young Dutchman who became aware of the issue through scuba diving.

But while it's wonderful that these initiatives exist, they do have their limits. They only tackle visible pollution on the surface of the oceans, which is a relatively small part of the total plastic pollution, less than 0.6%. Everything else dissolves into microparticles, settling to the bottom of the ocean or being washed up again on the coast.

What is the greatest polluter of the oceans?

80% of the ocean is polluted by waste from human and land-based sources. Traces of human activity can be found everywhere, even in the most remote parts of the ocean. According to ADEME - rather unsurprisingly - plastic is the most common type of waste in the marine environment.

But that's not all: marine pollution also comes from fertiliser and pesticide emissions from agricultural operations, along with toxic substances, hydrocarbons and petrol spills.

While plastic accounts for more than half of the waste found along the coast, other materials are also present in smaller quantities. Examples include: glass, foam, rubber, metal and paper. 

Waste collection

Coastal clean-up is essential to prevent waste from making its way back to the ocean. A number of associations, such as the Surfrider Foundation created by surfers in Biarritz, are working on this.

However, here's what would be even better: finding a way to eliminate this pollution from rivers and waterways before it reaches the ocean. In other words, addressing the problem upstream.

All of these initiatives, while useful, do not solve the root of the problem either: the overproduction of plastics.

Many experts and researchers agree that it is imperative to change our consumer habits, starting with the reduction of single-use packaging.

European governments have been working on this since 2016, with a ban on the distribution of plastic bags, followed by a ban on plastic straws, cutlery and plates in 2021. The French government has set two objectives in order to continue on this path: "zero plastic dumped into the ocean by 2025 " and "zero single-use plastic by 2040".

Companies, all companies, have a responsibility to find other types of packaging — biodegradable or compostable plastics, paper or aluminium — or even to eliminate it completely where possible. Biobased packaging, which may appear to be a solution, is not actually biodegradable and its production is very energy and water intensive. As such, it poses other environmental problems.

Plastic pollution in the oceans: immersion

Transforming an entire industry

Achieving a more rapid transition may also fall to each of us. As consumers, we can pay particular attention to what we buy and how it's packaged, only drink tap water, or buy things in bulk.

The very chemistry of plastic needs to be rethought, from product design to recycling to getting consumers to use it in more sustainable ways.

What about plastics at decathlon?

In 2021, 1416 tonnes of sales and production packaging were eliminated. The packaging team is committed to eliminating all single-use plastic packaging by 2026.
And then?
DECATHLON has begun its transition. Although by 1 January 2025 new washing machines will have to be equipped with plastic microfibre filters, there is still the complex issue of producing textiles that are less polluting.
DECATHLON has also joined a group of several companies to establish composition standards through testing. Which fabric breaks down easiest? Finding the answer to this question will enable us to select and use materials which minimise the release of microfibres.

Plastic pollution in the oceans: immersion
Plastic pollution in the oceans: immersion

Véronique

Yin yoga, hiking, cycling (sometimes on an electric bike, I admit...) But my day-to-day sport is writing. Through it, I learn about and reflect upon the issue of climate change: what sort of playground do we want to leave our children?