Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic waste flows into our oceans every year. Much of it drifts around for decades or centuries without decomposing. The durable plastic just breaks up into smaller pieces—called microplastics—that find their way into every living being, including humans.
The plastic that comprises the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is mostly from terrestrial trash that has found its way via rivers (known to carry some 4 million metric tons of plastic out to sea per year). Mother Nature Network describes the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as:
“a galaxy of garbage, populated by millions of smaller trash islands that may be hidden underwater or spread out over many miles. A 2018 study, using data from vessel and aircraft surveys, found that 79,000 tons of plastic are floating in an area spanning 1.6 million square kilometers (about 618,000 square miles).” This is almost the size of the country of Libya.
Recent studies have revealed that ten major rivers contribute to over 90% of ocean plastic:
- Yangtze River: flows through China into the Yellow Sea, Asia
- Indus River: flows through China, Jammu, Kashmir, Tibet, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into the Arabian Sea
- Yellow River (Huang He): flows through China into the Yellow Sea
- Hai River: flows through China into the Yellow Sea
- Nile River: flows through Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt into the Mediterranean Sea
- Meghna/Bramaputra/Ganges: flow through Tibet, India and Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal
- Pearl River (Zhujiang): flows through China into the South China Sea
- Amur River (Heilong Jiang): flows through Mongolia, China and Russia into the Sea of Okhotsk
- Niger River: flows through Nigeria into the Gulf of Guinea
- Mekong River: flows through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam into the South China Sea
Eight of these ten rivers are located in Asia; the high amount of plastic waste is linked to the population density and waste-management infrastructure in those countries. Studies revealed that eleven of the top twenty countries for plastic pollution are located in Asia.
China was given the top rank for plastic waste, followed by Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam who are dumping more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world combined. Other countries in the top twenty include Brazil, Egypt and Nigeria. The U.S. ranked in the twentieth position.
Nestlé, Unilever, P&G are among the worst offenders for plastic pollution in the Philippines and in other countries.
The top river for ocean plastic is China’s Yangtze River, which carries some 1.5 million metric tons of plastic into the East China Sea every year. The Yangtze also contained the highest load of microplastics seen in any river.
This information provides a focus for major mitigation measures aimed at key waterways. These countries and locations can be targeted for improved waste management and infrastructure with help from other jurisdictions as well as education on the public on littering and waste dumping generally.
In other countries the main culprit, say researchers, is still littering by individuals. “The main source in developed countries is littering,” says Schmidt, a researcher at the Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research in Germany. “This could be reduced if, for example, people would stop throwing food packaging out of their car windows.”
For inspiration, check out this list of ways to keep plastic where it belongs.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.