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Why does plastic end up in the ocean?

Words by Smiley Team

You’ve probably heard that plastic is a growing problem for our oceans and sea life. However, you may wonder why does plastic end up in the ocean in the first place? Or even more pressingly, how do we tackle it?

To answer these questions, Steve Hynd, policy manager at City to Sea, draws on his campaign experience to explain the fundamentals of plastic waste clogging up the oceans. And on a more positive note, he gives some top suggestions for what to do about it.

This is a vital cause for both people and the planet. Steve tells Smiley News: “The oceans literally give us every second breath that we breathe. If we don't look after them, it's the entire foundation of life on Earth that we're putting at risk.”

How plastic waste arrives in the sea

Every minute, 20 tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean. If this continues the UN warns that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. This pollution spreads to our shores, clogging the stomachs of animals and ending up in our food so that every week we swallow an average of five grams of plastic particles.

Part of the reason this is happening so quickly is that there are many ways in which plastic ends up in the ocean. Here are just some of the ways plastic can travel from your home or local shop to our waters.


Just 20 companies are responsible for over half of the plastic waste in our oceans. Much of this comes from simple carelessness across industrial plastic use. Nurdles, or small pieces of plastic just a few millimetres in diameter, are frequently spilt into the environment during transportation. These then get carried via waterways to the ocean.

Litter gets flushed away

One of the most obvious passages for plastic to the ocean is through drains. It’s not difficult to understand how litter cast into the environment can get washed into our waterways. 

“This is probably the most intuitive way people can imagine plastic pollution ending up in the ocean,” says Steve. Plastic bottles, packaging or cigarette butts littering the streets, will eventually be washed away by the rain into the drainage network, which eventually leads to the sea.

Household plastics slip into the sewage system

Other kinds of plastics we use in our homes often end up in the sewage system. This can cause overspill and blockages. But ultimately, the water pressure will build up and send these items into our oceans too. City to Sea estimates that plastic items flushed down toilets contribute to about 6% of all plastic littering UK beaches. 

Microplastics that travel on the wind

Not all plastics pass to the oceans through waterways or sewage networks. Some plastic particles are so tiny that they can drift through the air, carried by the breeze until they arrive in the water. 

Steve gives the example of car tyres that shed tiny pieces of plastic which accumulate in the environment, travel in the air and eventually reach the sea. This source of plastic pollution is said to make up more than 200,000 tonnes of microplastics entering our oceans every year.

What can we do about plastic pollution?

The good news is there are many strategies out there to resolve this issue and end the flow of plastic waste into the sea. This is especially the case for industrial regulation and governmental action to challenge the problem on as wide a scale as possible.

“At City to Sea, we'd like to see really far-reaching extensions of producer responsibilities,” says Steve. “This should primarily be through reduction, but also more effective recycling and reuse processes.”

Already the campaign group has made some progress, convincing the UK government to adopt a plastic tax that disincentivises companies from using plastic packaging. They introduced the tax on 1 April this year, at a rate of £200 per tonne of plastic packaging composed of less than 30% recycled plastic manufactured or imported into the UK.

Inspired to act?

Here are three UK-based organisations working to remove plastic from our oceans. Support their work to help protect wildlife and nature yourself by following the links below.

City to Sea

City to Sea is an environmental organisation working to end plastic pollution at its roots. They collaborate with communities and businesses to challenge the problem with the support of individual activists from around the world.

Get involved. Volunteer. Donate.

The Marine Conservation Society

This organisation is made up of a passionate community of volunteers who campaign and work towards cleaner oceans.

Get involved. Volunteer. Donate.

Surfers Against Sewage

Surfers Against Sewage is a campaign group aimed at tackling ocean pollution of various kinds through lobbying authorities and companies.

Get involved. Volunteer. Donate.


This article aligns with the following UN SDGs

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