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What processes carry plastic into the ocean? Are there certain routes that plastic takes to get to the ocean?
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Any plastic that has the potential to enter the ocean from land is called mismanaged plastic waste - this is plastic which has either been littered or inadequately disposed of. The organisation Our World in Data define the difference between littering and inadequate disposal as: 

  • Littered plastic – Plastic that has been dumped or disposed of without consent or in an inappropriate location.
  • Inadequately disposed plastic - Plastic which has the intention of being managed through waste collection or storage sites, but it is ultimately not formally managed. This includes plastic disposal in dumps or open, uncontrolled landfills; this means material can leak out or be transported into the natural environment. 


Pathways from Land

Plastic pathways from land to ocean are a new topic of scientific study. As a result, the pathways and transport processes are currently poorly understood. This is largely because the exact location of mismanaged plastic waste on land is poorly known and the effect of variables such as topography, land use, climate, vegetation and plastic shape and size on transportation are not yet known (Horton et al., 2017). Nevertheless, current understanding suggests the following pathways from land to ocean are important: 

From rivers  

Rivers are currently thought to be the main pathway by which plastic enters the oceans. One study estimates that between 1.15 and 2.41 million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year from rivers. Of this total, 67% of plastic entering the ocean can be attributed to just 20 rivers, which are mainly found in Asia. Different rivers across the world input different amount of plastic into the ocean based on population density, levels of urbanisation and industrial activity, the amount of rainfall and river discharge and the presence of dams which can act to hold back plastic.  

From beaches and coast 

Coastal processes such as rainfall runoff, winds, tides and gravity help to transport mismanaged plastic waste downhill towards the ocean (Jambeck et al., 2015). All these processes (other than tides) occur further inland, but because they are further away from the ocean, they are less likely to transport plastic to the ocean. Therefore, any mismanaged plastic waste near to the coast is a risk because it is much more likely to enter the ocean. One study calculated coastal input of plastic to the ocean to be in the range of 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean from the coast every year.

From stormwater runoff  

Extreme weather events such as storms, storm surges and tsunamis can over short time periods, transport significant amounts of mismanaged plastic waste into the ocean. For example, the Japan Tsunami of 2011 was estimated to transport 5 million tonnes of waste into the ocean.

From the atmosphere 

Plastic particles which are smaller than 5mm may be capable of being transported long distances within the atmosphere due to their low density. When the energy (primarily from wind) for transportation is lost, plastic particles ‘fallout’ to the Earth’s surface.  A study by Dris (2016) measured atmospheric fallout in France by collecting plastic samples in a funnel over a 3-month period at multiple sites. They measured an atmospheric fallout rate of between 2 and 355 particles per metre per day. 


See here for details on how plastic gets into the ocean from shipping and fishing.



Dris, R., Gasperi, J., Saad, M., Mirande, C. and Tassin, B., (2016). Synthetic fibers in atmospheric fallout: a source of microplastics in the environment?Marine pollution bulletin104(1-2), pp.290-293.

GESAMP (2016). “Sources, fate and effects of microplastics in the marine environment: part two of a global assessment” (Kershaw, P.J., and Rochman, C.M., eds). (IMO/FAO/UNESCO-IOC/UNIDO/WMO/IAEA/UN/ UNEP/UNDP Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection). Rep. Stud. GESAMP No. 93, 220 p.

Horton, A.A., Walton, A., Spurgeon, D.J., Lahive, E. and Svendsen, C., (2017). Microplastics in freshwater and terrestrial environments: evaluating the current understanding to identify the knowledge gaps and future research prioritiesScience of the Total Environment586, pp.127-141.

Jambeck, J.R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T.R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., Narayan, R. and Law, K.L., (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the oceanScience347(6223), pp.768-771.

Lebreton, L.C., Van Der Zwet, J., Damsteeg, J.W., Slat, B., Andrady, A. and Reisser, J., (2017). River plastic emissions to the world’s oceansNature communications8, p.15611.

Li, W.C., Tse, H.F. and FOK, L., (2016). Plastic waste in the marine environment: A review of sources, occurrence and effectsScience of the Total Environment566, pp.333-349. 

Murray, C.C., Maximenko, N. and Lippiatt, S., (2018). The influx of marine debris from the Great Japan Tsunami of 2011 to North American shorelinesMarine pollution bulletin132, pp.26-32.

Ritchie, H. (2018). Plastic Pollution. Available at: <https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution> (Accessed: 26 June 2020).

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