Plastic pollution

Our Plastic Problem: A Remarkably Brief Overview

By: Environmental, The Oceans

I don’t need to waste a sailor’s time by telling you there’s plastic in the ocean. If you’re out on the water, you’ve seen it by now. Some places are cleaner than others, and in some parts of the world it has reached an extreme that is truly surreal:

As we’ve mentioned before, this is not an “ocean problem.” This is a “people problem.”
So how did we get here, what’s the real level of the damage, and what do we do about it?

Our team at the American Sailing Association has decided that it’s time to get serious on protecting the ocean, and we want everyone onboard (pun intended.) In the interest of keeping this short and bittersweet, I have included a list of sources below for further reading.
Here’s the briefest briefing you are going to get on our plastic problem.

The ocean is facing many problems right now. Plastic pollution is among the biggest.

The ocean is a sailor’s playground, but humans have also used it as our dumping ground: A large portion of the waste we create on land eventually makes its way to the ocean through our waterways, blowing out of landfills, or is dumped directly by coastal communities. Plastic is one among many forms of ocean pollution: Runoff from industry and agriculture can poison fisheries and cause toxic algae blooms, as we’ve seen recently in Florida1. Excessive heat and gases generated from industry, transportation, and electricity generation are warming the ocean, which is killing off our coral reefs.2 These gases also increase the ocean’s acidity, which dissolves the shells of bivalves like mussels, oysters and clams3. Scientists are estimating that the amount of plastic in the ocean may outweigh its fish by 20504.


While we once viewed the ocean as endlessly bountiful and spacious, it is clear that we can’t continue on our current path. But please keep reading! I promise we’ll talk solutions soon.

Plastics are made from oil. Most of it is not recycled.


Plastic is an incredible and recent invention that has allowed our society to embrace conveniences that make our grandparents shake their heads in awe. While plastic polymers can be made out of various materials, almost all of the plastics we use in our day-to-day lives are made from crude oil. Consider for a moment the outrageousness of drilling oil from deep out of the ground, shipping it, refining it, adding dyes, chemicals and emulsifiers, molding it, packaging it (usually in more plastic), and then selling it in the form of a gelato-sampling spoon that will have a lifetime of about 8 seconds. A substance that takes millions of years to make5 should not be used so flippantly.

While we feel a sense of relief when we toss our plastics in the blue recycling bin, we shouldn’t. Most of this does not enjoy a second life. We simply do not have the infrastructure in place to handle the volume of recyclable waste we are producing. The U.S. used to export most of its plastic to China for processing, but recently China has stopped accepting almost all of our plastic waste.6 Americans are also particularly lazy trash sorters and many loads of recyclable materials are doomed to landfill because they are tainted with food scraps and oils.

Plastic kills wildlife and is absorbed into the food chain. This affects human health, as plastic is a carcinogen and absorbs toxic solvents.

In addition to its versatility, plastic is also incredibly durable. Instead of breaking down, it simply breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics.These plastic bits act as tiny sponges that absorb other toxins in the water7. Virtually every level of the food chain is now eating plastic, which means these toxins bioaccumulate up the food chain and eventually reach our plates. There are over 3 billion people relying on fisheries for food and nearly half the world’s population lives near a coastline,8 so there are serious implications for human health.

Okay, that was rough. Are you still with us? Now for the hopeful half:

Cleanups are happening all over the world, and anti-plastic laws are being passed.

An incredible young inventor named Boyan Slat recently launched the world’s first ocean plastic cleanup system and it’s heading to the Great Pacific garbage patch as you read these words. This swirling mass of plastic-bit soup is roughly twice the size of Texas and is one of five plastic gyres in the ocean (circular currents that trap plastic debris). Slat’s 2,000-foot floating barrier is one of 60, and he ambitiously plans to remove half the ocean’s current plastic waste by 2025.9

On land, coastal nations and cities are starting to take notice of the issue and are passing bans on single-use plastic items. Costa Rica, China, and the UK have all enacted legislation on plastic convenience items10.

While our plastic habit may seem overwhelming, solutions are possible. (What did your parents or grandparents do?)

Once you start paying attention to how much plastic is ingrained into your lifestyle, it can be a daunting task to start eliminating it. Like we just mentioned, plastic is a recent invention and there was a time in recent history when we went about our lives without it. We did it then and we can do it again.
There are many reusable and plastic-free products out there that can take the place of the conveniences we love but don’t need. We are going to be sharing some plastic-free lifestyle and sailing tips in the coming months, so stay tuned!

ASA is going to be incorporating plastic pollution prevention into our curriculum and creating new standards for our network of sailing schools.

We believe that all sailors have an obligation to take care of the ocean, and we want to help our network beat plastic pollution together. Not only will we continue to share information about this issue to our readers, but we are going to incorporate ocean-friendly sailing into our ASA curriculum and school standards.

We are a network of over 350 schools all over the world, and across nations, languages and cultures, we all share the responsibility to protect our playground. Together we can make a difference in how we interact with the world’s oceans. Remember the Plastic Pollution Purge – bring back more plastic that you take. We hope you’ll join us.

For Further Reading:

  1. What’s an algae bloom and how did it wind up sliming Florida’s biggest lake? – article by Miami Herald.
  2. How does climate change affect coral reefs? – article by National Ocean Service / NOAA
  3. Ocean Acidification’s impact on oysters and other shellfish – video by PBS NewsHour
  4. More plastic in the sea than fish? Not if we do these 3 things – article by World Economic Forum
  5. Petroleum is a FOSSIL FUEL – article by Southeastern Louisiana University
  6. Plastics Pile Up as China Refuses to Take the West’s Recycling – article by The New York Times
  7. Ocean Plastics Soak Up Pollutants – article by Chemical & Engineering News
  8. Sustainable Seafood – article by World Wildlife Fund
  9. A Dutch Teenager Had a Dream to Clean Up the World’s Oceans – article about The Ocean Cleanup by TIME
  10. 10 Cities and Countries Confronting Plastic Bag Pollution Head-On – article by EARTHDAY.ORG
Meet Lauren Lauren Coiro

Lauren is a marine conservationist, writer, and advocate for ocean-friendly living. She’s spent her entire life in the water, snorkeling, scuba diving, and kayaking, and has traveled to various parts of the world to study the ocean’s biodiversity and explore coastal communities. Lauren realized that the very best way to experience and appreciate the marine world is to get out there and start sailing!

With her ASA certifications Lauren hopes to make sailing a permanent part of her life and to connect with like-minded people who share her love of the sea. She admires the hard work and simplicity that can come with the nautical lifestyle and is eager to share how her ASA experience raises questions, challenges, and new opportunities along the way.