Ocean Pollution Statistics and Facts 2021

When it comes to marine life and ocean pollution statistics, mismanaged waste and chemical pollution are having an impact that is larger than ever before. Whether you consider the great pacific garbage patch, dead zones or even the various sources of marine pollution, it is clear that the environment is significantly threatened by human activity.

Quick Facts

  • It is predicted that plastic will outnumber fish by 2050.
  • Areas called ‘dead zones’ are continuing to appear across the ocean – these are areas in which most marine life can’t survive as a result of a lack of oxygen. There are estimated to be around 500 dead zones throughout the earth’s ocean, covering almost 250,000 square kilometres.
  • Plastic pollution causes yearly deaths of over 100,000 marine mammals, and over 1 million seabirds.
  • Of the 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic estimated to be in the ocean, experts have estimated that there are four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometre, and almost 300,000 tons of plastic floating on the surface.
  • China accounts for almost 9 metric tons of mismanaged plastic per year – a similar amount to the next four top countries combined.
  • Plastics do not decompose – they can take as long as 1000 years to break down, either into smaller pieces, or into toxic chemicals.
  • Thanks to oceanic currents, marine litter often becomes concentrated in specific areas within the ocean, referred to as gyres – there are now five gyres within the earth’s ocean.
  • 90% of marine debris worldwide comes from just 10 rivers.
  • Ocean acidification is continuing to occur as carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels dissolves into the ocean, thus lowering the pH level of the water.
  • Many reports indicate that tyre dust from around the world is one of the largest sources of microplastic pollution within the ocean.
  • While some forms of marine pollution have a greater impact on particular marine animals, this can have a significant domino effect on the food chain of animals around the world.
  • Plastic production has increased from 2.3 million tons in 1950, to 448 million tons in 2015. This figure is estimated to hit close to 1 billion by 2015.
  • Whilst China is the worst offender when it comes to mismanaged waste, the United States pollute more on a waste per person basis.
  • From 1950 to 1998, over 100 nuclear bomb tests occurred within the sea.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

One of the most commonly discussed aspects of marine pollution is in regard to the great pacific garbage patch, or the pacific trash vortex. This is a collection of plastic waste and marine debris within the north pacific ocean, brought together by the ‘North Pacific Subtropical Gyre’ – put simply, this is a system of swirling ocean currents.

Whilst you might think of a large island of floating rubbish and debris, the reality is that the pieces of plastic within the great pacific garbage patch have often been broken down into microplastics, which are often impossible to see with the naked eye. Many expert ecologists and oceanographers also believe that the sea floor beneath this gyre may be an area with a significant amount of waste – this is backed by research showing that over 2/3 of marine pollution sinks to the sea bed.

It is estimated that the garbage patch covers a surface area of 1.6 million square kilometres – this is twice the size of Texas.

One estimate by the ‘Marine Debris Program’ indicated that a year long clean up attempt of the North Pacific Ocean, utilising 67 ships, would clean under one percent of the area.

The Types of Plastic Waste Humans are Producing

Looking at types of consumer plastic waste found in the environment more generally, the leading categories are single use plastics like plastic bottles, food wrappers, and cigarette butts. These are the types of plastic most commonly found to pollute rivers – from here, the waste flows directly into the ocean.

The most common types of consumer plastic waste found in rivers:

  1. Plastic bottles: 14%
  2. Food wrappers: 12%
  3. Cigarette butts: 9%
  4. Food containers: 6%
  5. Cotton bud sticks: 5%
  6. Cups: 4%
  7. Sanitary items : 3%
  8. Cigarette and smoking related packaging: 2%
  9. Plastic straws and cutlery: 1%
  10. Plastic bags: 1%

When it comes to the more specific types of plastic waste commonly found in the ocean, research into plastic samples has indicated that types of plastic debris will range includes polyethylene and polypropylene. These are the plastic materials used to make household items that include anything from plastic straws to plastic bags.

With this being said, other common types of plastic (such as PVC, PET, PS) are more rarely found when it comes to marine pollution. This doesn’t mean that they do not contribute to marine debris – these materials have a higher density than that of seawater, and as a result they sink to the ocean floor.

Additionally, while consumer plastic waste is a significant contributor to marine pollution, another is in regard to fishing gear. A 2019 Greenpeace report indicated that the majority of large plastic debris in the ocean was comprised of fishing gear. This is supported by the fact that over half a million tonnes of commercial fishing gear is dumped in the ocean annually. What makes fishing gear pollution even more deadly than other kinds is that fishing nets easily trap marine life.

The Top 10 Rivers Carrying Waste to the Ocean

Rivers are a significant source of land based marine pollution – plastic waste will flow from land based sources directly into the ocean. These are the top 10 biggest polluting rivers.

  1. Chang Jiang (Yangtze River): 1,469,481 tons
  2. Indus: 164,332 tons
  3. Huang He (Yellow River): 124,249 tons
  4. Hai He: 91,858 tons
  5. Nile: 84,792
  6. Meghna, Brahmaputra, Ganges: 72,845 tons
  7. Zhujiang (Pearl River): 52,958 tons
  8. Amur: 38,267 tons
  9. Niger: 35,196 tons
  10. Mekong: 33,431 tons

These 10 rivers account for over 90% of waste that is carried into the ocean.

Taking a closer look at land based plastic marine pollution, a total of 9.5 million tonnes of plastic waste is entering the ocean on an annual basis – furthermore, just 0.5 million tonnes of this is from inland sources. The rest, a staggering 9 million tonnes (yearly), comes from land based coastal sources.

The Amount of Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

When it comes to how much plastic waste is in the ocean, the specifics are difficult to define. With this being said, approximately eight million pieces of plastic debris enter the ocean on a daily basis. Yearly, this means that humans put approximately 12 million tonnes of plastic waste into the sea.

While awareness surrounding marine pollution is increasing, the production of plastic continues to rise. In 1950, just over 2 million tons of plastic was produced – in 2015, this figure had risen to 448 million. By 2050, this figure could be close to hitting one billion tons.

This is the amount of plastic entering the oceans – how long it stays there is another problem in itself. Some experts estimate that plastic can take at least 400 years to break down. When it comes to cleaning the ocean of marine debris, the task is almost impossible. Whilst large items can be removed, broken down microplastics cannot.

Ultimately, experts have estimated that around 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic waste currently litter the ocean (as of 2015).

Frequently Asked Questions About Ocean Pollution Statistics

What is the percentage of waste in the ocean?

According to a 2006 Greenpeace report, approximately 10% of plastic produced each year ends up in the ocean.

How much pollution goes into the ocean each year?

Experts have estimated that around 8 million metric tons of plastic go into the ocean each year.

How any ocean animals die each year from pollution?

As a result of marine pollution, over 1 million marine animals die each year. This marine life includes fish, birds, and other sea life.

How does marine pollution harm wildlife?

Marine pollution and plastic more generally causes the death of millions of animals and marine wildlife every year, most commonly by starvation or entanglement. Many plastics are eaten by animals, and it is estimated that close to 700 species have been affected by plastic.

What percentage of ocean pollution comes from land?

When it comes to the sources of marine pollution, it is estimated that approximately 80% comes from land based sources. The remaining 20% comes from marine sources such as boats.

What percentage of ocean pollution is fishing nets?

As indicated in a 2018 study, fishing nets comprise almost 50% of the mass of the great pacific garbage patch. This is largely due to significant fishing activity within the Pacific ocean, as well as ocean currents and dynamics.

What percentage of ocean pollution is plastic bottles?

It is estimated that around 15% of all litter is in the form of plastic bottles and beverage containers. This doesn’t include lids, bottle caps, plastic wrapping or labels.

What is the Gulf of Mexico’s 8000 mile dead zone?

The Gulf of Mexico contains a significant patch of polluted water, comprised of fertiliser pollutants and sewage, washed into the ocean by rainfall. This ultimately results in an area of low-oxygen water, causing hypoxia (a dead zone) – as a result, marine life dies in this area.

What is ocean acidification?

Ocean acidification is where carbon dioxide gas in the earth’s atmosphere is absorbed into the ocean – as a result of the burning of fossil fuels and the increased output of carbon dioxide, this is becoming increasingly problematic and has negative implications for plankton and marine life more generally.

Sam Davis

Growing up on the Cornish Coast, sailing family yachts, I have always been surrounded with boating life. Based at the Spit Marina in Mosman, Sydney, I have sold hundreds of boats in the luxury cruiser market. I love to help people to find the right boat. Whether you are a buyer or seller, looking for new or used, I can help you with the whole process from search right through to survey.