Top 5 things you can do to help solve the ocean plastics problem

By CarolAnne Black

published April 25, 2023
A person is crouching on a beach collecting plastic waste.

The ocean plastics problem is complex, but not unsolvable. It is a challenging issue because we use plastics every day and plastics enter the ocean around the world. And once in the ocean, plastics are difficult to clean up. They break apart in the ocean into tiny pieces called microplastics*, which are often too small to see. Ocean currents quickly disperse plastics across the 70% of the planet covered by the ocean, from surface to seafloor. Ultimately, the key to preventing ocean plastics is to start at the source of the pollution, on land: we need to divert plastics before they reach the ocean.

In Canada, the federal government is taking steps to reduce the amount of plastics entering the ocean, internationally and at home. The manufacture, use and sale of single-use plastics that are most commonly found in Canada’s natural environment – plastic bags, cutlery, straws, six-pack rings, and stir sticks, and Styrofoam takeout containers – will be banned by the end of 2022**. In 2018, Canada launched the Ocean Plastics Charter. Since then, 25 governments and 65 businesses (e.g. IKEA and PepsiCo) and organisations have signed on to “ensure that plastics are designed for repair, reuse, recycling, and are recovered at end-of-life to prevent waste and pollution.”

There are also actions we can all take as individuals to have a positive impact on our ocean. “Youth play a very important role in taking action against plastic pollution,” says Ocean School Co-Founder, Boris Worm. “They can look at their own plastic consumption habits and encourage their family and friends, as well as businesses they interact with to scale back on single-use plastics. Youth can become great advocates for a cleaner, healthier way of life. It’s a choice we all make every day.”

Here are our top five ways you can take action against ocean plastics:

1. Reduce your use of plastics

The best possible option to decrease plastics entering the ocean is reducing the amount produced. We can do that by reducing demand for plastics. A good place to start is with single-use plastics. Choose not to use plastic bags (including ziplocs), straws, cutlery, and styrofoam. Choose to buy items not wrapped in plastic. More generally, reduce your use of items made of plastics, especially those that cannot be recycled. Where possible, choose products that are made from materials other than plastics.

2. Dispose of your garbage properly, no matter where you live

No matter where you live, all waterways in your community eventually flow to the ocean. A plastic spoon that accidentally falls on the ground can be washed by the next rain into a storm sewer that takes it to a local river. That river may end in another river, a lake or the ocean. To keep plastics out of the ocean, it is important to dispose of your garbage properly.

3. Understand your plastic footprint and equip yourself with knowledge about the challenge

Knowing the scale of a problem can help us better understand how to solve it. Keep track of all the plastics you discard - you may be surprised by how much we all use on a day-to-day basis. Single-use plastics, such as bottles, cups, bags, straws, and food packaging add up quickly. There are many items we may not immediately think of as plastic, such as cigarette butts, and cotton swabs that may end up in local environments.

4. Make ocean-friendly choices, like buying clothing made from natural fibers

Many of our favourite clothes are made from synthetic materials, meaning they are people-made, and often derived from petroleum. Materials like nylon, polyester fleece, and spandex are woven into many of the clothes we wear. Garments made from these materials shed hundreds of thousands of tiny strands called microfibers each time they’re laundered. Microfibers enter local waterways and make their way to the ocean. Chemicals glom onto microfibers, which can be mistaken for food by tiny marine animals, and allow potentially dangerous chemicals to enter the marine food chain.

To make a positive difference, choose clothing made from natural fibers, such as cotton, wool or hemp. Or, even better, reduce the number of new garments you buy by hosting a clothing-exchange with your friends.

5. Organize a clean-up event along your local waterway

Key to understanding the ocean plastics problem is to know that we are still adding plastics to the ocean. Since most plastics enter the ocean via waterways, it is important to protect these environments, by removing plastics before they can enter the ocean (and become a more difficult problem to solve). One of the best ways to keep plastics out of the ocean, and out of freshwater ecosystems like lakes and rivers, is to take part in a shoreline cleanup event. And if there isn’t one in your area, you can organize one, or simply head down to the shore with some gloves and a bag next time you’re out for a walk.

By better understanding how we contribute to the ocean plastics problem and taking steps to reduce our plastics footprint, we can all have a positive impact on the health of our global ocean. A great way to care for our ocean is to care about what gets washed into it.

*Micro is a prefix meaning we put 5 zeros after the decimal in our measurements: 1 micrometer is the same as 0.000001 meters. The smallest thing the human eye can perceive is about 30 micrometers.

**The ban officially came into effect on December 20, 2022. Read more about it here.

About CarolAnne Black

CarolAnne Black tells ocean stories. She writes on all topics related to the ocean, and especially loves to work on writing projects that help empower girls and women in ocean science. In her work, CarolAnne gets to talk with ocean experts from around the world and write about how they’re working to understand and protect our global ocean. She likes to swim with her three kids in the Ottawa River by their home and talk about how the water is making its way back to the ocean.

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