The problem with the plastic

Mechanical capacity and stability are the main features of plastic products. Exactly this characteristic makes plastic to a problem when it becomes waste. As a consequence, plastic litter needs hundreds to thousands years to disintegrate. Already in 2014, 270.000 tons and 5.25 trillions of plastic portions were estimated in the oceans, respectively.1 Furthermore, the impact of plastic waste in water values from 4.8 to 12.7 million tons each year globally.2

Thereby, 80% of the litter is carried from the mainland into sea by tourism, leisure time activities, household garbage, industrial waste and raw sewage. Subsequently, through rivers, defecators, drains, wind and tides the litter reaches the oceans.3 However, direct activities on sea causes plastic litter (15%) as well by fisheries, merchant and cargo shipping though i.e. raw sewage and angling equipment.3

Worldwide surface currents induce high plastic gatherings in the oceans. The larges spread with a size of Central Europe extends north-east from Hawaii and is called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. Nevertheless, in all five patches, plastic concentrations from 1000 to 2500 g/ km² are found.4 However, on the sea surface only the smallest amount of plastic deposition is detected (1%). The lion’s share from the yearly deposition sinks to the bottom of the oceans (94%).3

Due to the plastics mechanical stability, only sun exposure, wind oscillation and undulation breaks it down to smaller and smaller fragments. Below a size of 5 mm this plastic is called secondary micro plastics. Furthermore, primary micro plastics can also be found in the sea. This micro plastic mainly originate from tire dust (28%), plastic granulate (25%), synthetic textiles (20%) and cleaning and cosmetic products (4%).5

By now, micro plastic particles are found in water, sand and sediments worldwide. Scientist assumed that every tenth sand grain on the beach is micro plastic already.6 Danger of the micro plastic is based on the polymers particular surface. There, toxics adhere in thousand fold concentrations compared to the surrounding water. Additionally, the chemical composition of the micro plastic itself consists of toxic (vinyl chloride) and hormonal active additive (bisphenol A).7 Studies on animals ingesting direct (i.e. mussels, worms, fish) or indirect through the food chain micro plastic (i.e. fish, mammals, birds) showed higher rates of physiological effects, tumor formations, mortality rates and hormonal potencies.8

However, thousands of animals already perish on plastic before it becomes micro plastic. Each year more than one million sea birds and 100.000 mammals5 fall victim to the plastic: Birds and turtles mistake plastic as nourishment leading to intestinal obstructions and death. Other animals get entangle in six-pack packaging, angling equipment and lost fishing nets (ghost nets). Ghost nets for example pose a danger for the native grey seals and porpoise in the Baltic Sea. Once caught in a ghost net, breathing on the sea surface gets challenging for the porpoise. By now, only 500 porpoise are estimated in the central Baltic Sea.9

Furthermore, plastic litter damaged or destroyed sensitive habitats like coral reefs and eelgrass meadows. Each year, plastic waste causes environmental damage at 13 billion USD.10

Besides the plastic impact on animals and plants, the economy suffers: Plastic litter enhance costs for cities and communes for cleansing, disposal and reconstruction of the nature. Additionally, fisheries bewail ingestion fails due to sick or death fish and litter in nets.

Finally, everybody is influenced by plastic waste since it influences the human health and security on the beach and sea and by polluted water.


EUCC – The Coastal Union Germany is scientific partner of the project The Universal Sea.

More facts and initiatives can be found on their website:


1 Eriksen, Marcus, et al. “Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans: more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea.” PloS one 9.12 (2014): e111913.

2 Jambeck, Jenna R., et al. “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean.” Science 347.6223 (2015): 768-771).

3 Sherrington, C., et al. “Study to support the development of measures to combat a range of marine litter sources.” London: Report for European Commission DG Environment (2016).

4Ambsdorf, Jens, et al. “Meeresatlas: Daten und Fakten über unseren Umgang mit dem Ozean.” (2017) p. 18.



7 Klein, Sascha, Thomas P. Knepper, and Eckhard Worch. “Mikroplastik im aquatischen Ökosystem.”