Smells fishy? Not really.

There will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

The warning came in 2016 from the Ellen McArthur foundation, during a meeting of the World Economic Forum.

Five years later, this is still a very worrying concern, despite many efforts to reduce single-use plastic consumption. In 2020, there were still 269 thousand tonnes of plastic floating in our seas and oceans. The infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch (located between Hawai and Califórnia) is over 79 thousand tonnes, and spans over 1.6 million square kilometres – approximately the same land area as Iran.

But, even though we refer to plastic as a single item, not all plastics are the same. Some take months to decompose, others might take millennia.

Types of plastic that end up in the ocean every day

Nylon, polycarbonates, polyester, polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyurethane, PVC, PVCD, acrylic, teflon, silicone, microplastics, biodegradable plastics. Fourteen types of plastic that make up basic, everyday objects – in its vast majority, single-use or with a limited lifespan.

By being discarded incorrectly, these plastics end up in the ocean. Get to know some examples of objects where you can find diferent types of plastics. By the way, notice how long they take to decompose.

Types of plastic that end up in the ocean every day
  • Biodegradable plastic

    It takes up to 24 months to decompose and can be found in single-use items (cutlery, plates, cups, take away containers).

  • Polypropylene

    It takes 20 to 30 years to decompose and can be found in bottle caps, straws, yoghurt cups and car bumpers.

  • Nylon

    It takes 30 to 40 years to decompose and can be found in toothbrushes, textile fibres and fish rods.

  • Silicone

    It takes 20 to 100 years to decompose and can be found in kitchenware, contact lenses and baby bottle teats.

  • Polyester

    It takes 20 to 200 years to decompose and can be found in fibres, textiles or costume wigs.

  • Polycarbonates

    It takes 100 years to decompose and can be found in eyeglass lenses, CDs and traffic lights.

  • Acrylic

    It takes 200 years to decompose and can be found in musical instruments, golf clubs and helmets.

  • Polyethylene

    It takes more than 450 years to decompose and can be found in detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, outdoor furniture, shower curtains, take away containers, shopping bags, single-use bottles, food wrappers and microwave containers.

  • Polyurethane

    It takes 100 to 400 years to decompose and can be found in sponges, thermal insulation, paint and polish.

  • Teflon

    It takes centuries to decompose and can be found in non-stick coating for pans and pots.

  • Microplastics

    It takes 100 to 1000 years to decompose and can be found in cosmetics, body scrubs and toothpaste.

  • Polystyrene

    It takes 500 to 1 million years to decompose and can be found in filling, food packaging, disposable cutlery and plates or cassettes.

  • PVDC

    It takes millennia to decompose and can be found in cling film.

  • PVC

    It takes millennia to decompose and can be found in pipes, insulation, electric cables and shower curtains.

Plastic pollution is not disappearing

Although plastic was accidentally discovered more than a century ago, this material has only become extremely popular in the 1970s. Most of all the plastic ever produced still exists to this day. This is because plastic can take between a dozen to a million years to decompose.

 

Top 10 plastic items found in beaches

A study carried out by the Earthwatch Institute in 2019 reveals the ten items most commonly found in beaches and rivers in Europe.

Top 10 plastic items found in beaches

Source: Earthwatch Institute

Each of these objects can be composed of various types of plastics. Nappies, sanitary towels or cigarette butts can contain up to a dozen different plastics.

The vast majority of plastics found in oceans, seas, lakes and rivers come from countries without proper waste collection systems. Only a small part comes from industrialised countries, such as the EU Member States.

Some types of plastic are essential

There’s no denying plastic is regarded as the environment’s number one enemy. However, we must admit plastic and its applications are completely essential nowadays – namely in medicine or science.

We refer both to plastic that is used in high technology, such as PEEK (polyether-ether-ketone), used in a variety of medical implants or even to recreate skulls in neurosurgery, and to more common types of plastic, like polyethylene, which has important applications in spacecraft.

At the same time, the discovery of plastic has brought more effective ways to protect and preserve food, extend shelf life or even reduce the carbon emissions associated with product distribution.

The problem does not lie in plastic itself, but rather in how we throw it away, how we process it, and in the world’s obsession with disposable and single-use plastic.

So how can we look at the problem of single-use plastic? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, to which we add two more actions – Rethink and Refuse – are always good principles. But there is more. Get inspired by some zero waste tips.