How Does Plastic Get into the Ocean?

There’s just no way of getting around it — plastic is nearly everywhere in our daily lives. Whether you’re picking up a take-and-bake family meal from the grocery store or squirting out the last bit of toothpaste, the chances are pretty high that plastic is involved.

Plastic does have its benefits, especially when it comes to food packaging. Plastic is not only durable and lightweight, but it also protects against contaminants and the elements. This protection can help extend shelf life and cut down on food waste. 

plastic juice bottles in grocery store

plastic cleaning supply bottles in grocery store

The problem with plastic, though, is that it’s often discarded improperly. According to a study in Science Advances, 91% of plastic is never recycled. Unfortunately, a lot of that plastic makes its way into the ocean, which causes many problems to the ecosystem.

In this blog, we cover some of the ways plastic enters the sea, the effects plastic has on the ocean, and what you can do to help reduce your plastic footprint. 

Ways Plastic Gets into the Ocean

It’s difficult to determine how much plastic is actually in the ocean, but scientists estimate about 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the sea every year. To put that number in perspective, that’s 25,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building. Here are some of the most common ways that this staggering amount of plastic ends up in the ocean.


Do you remember the last time you took a family vacation to the beach? Most likely, it was a wonderful time. You stretched back in your outdoor chair, gazing out at the beautiful, glistening sea or lake as your kids played in the water. But did you remember to clean up after yourself by picking up and properly throwing away your plastic materials? If so, great! But sometimes, this isn’t always the case. Many vacationers often litter their bottles, food packaging, and cigarette butts directly in the sand, which eventually makes its way into the ocean. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, this littering can be due to a lack of proper waste management systems along certain beaches. 

littered beach

Materials thrown or lost overboard from ships is another contributing factor to the plastic waste growth. Marine litter such as fishing nets, gear, and other materials can find its way into the ocean. 

Even if you live in a landlocked state such as Nebraska or Kansas, where you’re thousands of miles away from any coast, the plastic you throw away could eventually end up at sea. Plastic bottles and packaging can be blown into rivers or drains and flow into the ocean. 

littered river

Down the Drain

You may not know that microbeads — pieces of plastic smaller than a grain of sand — can be found in several personal care and cosmetic products such as toothpaste, face soap, and body wash. Whenever you’re scrubbing your face or brushing your teeth, these microbeads are washed down your drain. Since microbeads are so tiny, wastewater plants have a difficult time filtering them out, offering a direct pathway to the ocean.

microbeads in face wash

Many countries — including the United States — have banned personal care products with microbeads. However, there’s still not a worldwide ban on microbeads, so you may not realize you’re using them. Next time you stock up on toothpaste, face wash, or any other personal care product, check the label on the back to see if it includes these ingredients:

  • Polyethylene
  • Polypropylene
  • Polyethylene terephthalate
  • Polymethyl

Microfibers are another risk for plastic entering the ocean. These plastic fibers are found in synthetic clothing and can shed when they’re in the washing machine. Just like with microbeads, wastewater plants can’t filter out microfibers due to their small size. 

Landfills and Industrial Leakage

Whenever you put plastic products in trash cans instead of recycling bins, it’ll most likely end up sitting in landfills. Since plastic is so lightweight, the wind can easily blow it away. Then, plastic can make its way to drains and then eventually flow into the sea.


Improper disposal of plastic doesn’t just happen on an individual level, either. Negligence in industrial processes can be responsible for plastic seeping into the environment. This leakage can usually occur during the production or transportation stage of the plastic product. For example, according to a study in the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, researchers believe 3 to 36 million plastic pellets continuously leak from a manufacturing site in Stenungsund, Sweden every year.

The Effects of Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

Once plastic enters the ocean, what exactly happens to it? For one, the abundance of plastic waste can be incredibly damaging to marine life. Sea turtles, in particular, feel the effects of plastic pollution. A majority of their population will either be injured or killed via ingestion or entanglement of plastic. This devastation also applies to many other marine species, including fish, dolphins, and whales. 

sea turtle caught in fishing net

Another reason plastic is so detrimental to the environment is that it can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, which means it can be in the sea for that long. As plastic is tossed around by the ocean currents, it can break down into extremely tiny pieces called microplastics. In fact, the microbeads and microfibers mentioned earlier fall under this category. Microplastics are known to absorb chemical pollutants such as PCBs and DDT. Whenever fish and other sea life accidentally eat microplastics, you may end up ingesting the absorbed toxins the next time you’re dining at a seafood restaurant.

Plastic can also endanger biodiversity. Products such as bottles and cups can serve as vessels for species like algae and barnacles, allowing them to land in unfamiliar places across the world. As a result, these new species can become troublesome for the local ecosystem.

Plastic Bank

The effects of plastic pollution in the ocean are sobering. However, Plastic Bank is one of the leading organizations that are empowering the world to prevent the flow of ocean-bound plastic — or plastic that will most likely end up in the sea. Their mission is to stop ocean-bound plastic by gathering people together to monetize waste while improving lives. Plastic Bank is incentivizing citizens from developing countries to collect ocean-bound plastic in their communities in exchange for cash, food, clean water, and school tuition among other goods and services. Since its inception, Plastic Bank has collected nearly 10 million kilograms of ocean-bound plastic — and counting! 

Plastic Bank Plastic Bank

Ways You Can Limit Adding to Ocean-Bound Plastic

When it comes to reducing ocean-bound plastic, it starts with the individual. Whether you mean to litter or not, there’s always a chance it can enter the ocean. Still, there are many ways you can make a positive impact, even if they’re just little changes.

reusable product bags

1 — Bring reusable bags every time you visit the grocery store.

2 — Always throw away plastic products in recycling bins, not trash cans.

3 — Stop using plastic straws and disposable cups.

4 — Don’t buy disposable razors.

5 — Carry a reusable water bottle with you instead of buying a plastic bottle.

reusable water bottles

6 — Wear fewer synthetic clothes and choose natural fibers when you can.

7 — Look for volunteer cleanup opportunities in your community.

8 — Consider products made of ocean-bound plastic like the The Ocean Chair.

the wave collection
The Ocean Chair

With each Ocean Chair purchase POLYWOOD will transform 1,000+ ocean-bound plastic containers into beautiful outdoor furniture built to last for generations!

One Ocean Chair equals 1,000+ ocean-bound containers

How do you try and reduce your plastic footprint? Let us know in the comments down below!

6 thoughts on “How Does Plastic Get into the Ocean?

  1. There is no mention of companies that (unethically!!) dump ‘recycle’-bound plastics in the ocean. To-be-recycled plastic, when taken to be ‘processed’ by fraudulent companies, is thrown into the ocean. THIS MUST BE STOPPED. ALL countries must be held accountable for and incentivized to prevent further avoidable polluting.

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