Humanity’s fast-food habit is filling the ocean with plastic

Plastic and other debris floats underwater in blue water

Plastic detritus from snacks and meals floats in the Red Sea. Marine sampling shows that food waste accounts for nearly 90% of plastic pollution at some locales. Credit: Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media/Getty

Ocean sciences

Humanity’s fast-food habit is filling the ocean with plastic

Food bags, drink bottles and similar items account for the biggest share of plastic waste near the shore.

Takeaway food and beverage packaging is the main source of plastic litter accumulating along many coasts.

Around 8 million metric tons of plastic waste ended up in the ocean in 2010. Using data from scientific surveys and community waste inventories, Carmen Morales-Caselles and Andrés Cózar, at the University of Cadiz in Puerto Real, Spain, and their colleagues classified more than 12 million items of litter found worldwide according to product type, material composition and probable origin.

Takeaway items discarded shortly after use, including plastic bags, wrappers, food containers, bottles, cans and cutlery, accounted for the largest share — up to 88% — of waste accumulating along shorelines and in near-shore waters. Waste resulting from fishing activities, including synthetic ropes, strings and nets, is the dominant source of litter in the open ocean, the researchers found.

Understanding the products that account for the biggest share of marine litter is crucial to reducing pollution, the authors say. Such knowledge is also needed to ensure responsible production and consumption patterns, they add.

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