Humanity’s Plastic Footprint (III)

By: Gail Kulisch

[Gail Kulisch, a Virginia Tech Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) alumni and an environmental consultant with experience in marine pollution and remediation. In Part I of this four-part series, Kulisch introduced the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and its impact; in Part II she discussed what makes plastics such a persistent water problem. This installment presents the path plastics take from production to accumulation in the world’s oceans.]

Of the 10.4 million tons of packaging waste produced in the United Kingdom, 18% was plastic material (Song et al., 2009). Plastics make up 80-85% of the seabed debris in Tokyo Bay (Moore 2008). To break the cycle of use and discard, private and public entities globally are moving toward life-cycle materials management.

For example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Kobe 3R Action Plan (a plan issued by the Group of Eight) have recommended that member countries pay increased attention to life-cycle approaches to material flows (Gurria, 2008). Companies in the metals, cement, agribusiness, food and retail industries are also formulating approaches to increase efficiency and reduce environmental impacts by taking a life-cycle view of materials and processes (USEPA 2016).

Quickly becoming industry standards and best practices, lifecycle management of materials, particularly plastics, offers an opportunity to reduce waste to landfills and open environments. Around the world these practices differ. Some countries offer professional waste management services while other countries collect wastes in open areas, trash piles, and in the open environment where are washed by rains and floods into tributaries, estuaries, and ultimately the ocean.

Even before plastics begin the journey to the ocean, plastic production itself has negatively impacted the environment. Lifecycle studies of the two most common polymers used to make plastics, PET and PLA have determined that total PET emits 3000.02 tons of carbon and total PLA emits 0.97 tons of carbon throughout their lifecycle. These plastics emitted the majority of their carbon from transportation as they moved from raw materials to products and then on to consumers.

At the post-consumption end of the spectrum, PET and PLA have similar carbon emissions when traveling from consumers to disposal sites (Shen 2011). Their presence in the environment ranges from decades to centuries. For example, plastic bags can take 20 years to decompose, plastic bottles up to 450 years, and fishing line, 600 years. With exposure to UV rays and the ocean environment, plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller fragments. The majority of the plastic found in the ocean are tiny pieces less than 1 cm. in size, with the mass of 1/10 of a paper clip (Cho 2011). No one really knows how long plastics will remain in the ocean.

Initiatives and Solutions to Reduce Plastic Wastes

The non-profit organization Sea Around Us estimates that the global catch from fisheries is 109 million metric tons (mt) annually while also noting that approximately one-third of global fish catch may be unreported (Goldburg 2016). Activities such as artisanal, subsistence, and illegal fishing, however, are often not included in the official statistics. Estimates of illegal fishing vary widely and the true extent of fishing, along with the health of fish stocks worldwide is likely unknown. Thousands of fishing vessels move throughout the world and their abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear – known as ALDFG – is a growing concern of the international maritime community leadership. The International Maritime Organization recently added an amendment to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL Annex 5), which has expanded international maritime pollution regulations to include a complete ban on the discharge of plastic waste from a vessel (International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. MARPOL 2018)

As with all laws and regulations, enforcement is a challenge. Coast Guards and maritime protection agencies of signatory countries do their best to monitor fisheries compliance at sea while both government and industry are harnessing technology to improve monitoring. A recently developed capability, Global Fishing Watch, uses public broadcast data from the Automatic Identification System (AIS) through satellite and land-based receivers to track the movement of ships.

Similarly, the PEW Charitable Trusts, working closely with SkyTruth, launched ‘Project Eyes’, a similar technology aimed at helping authorities detect and respond to pirate fishing in the oceans

In a personal interview with Mr. Robert Magnien, Director for Coastal Ocean Research, Nation Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce, it was clear that multidisciplinary research and collaborative initiatives, such as those listed above, are essential to better understand conservation and management of ocean and coastal resources, and closely aligns with the work of NOAA. (Magnien 2016 – pers. comm.).

NOAA’s use of satellite imagery of the oceans, particularly the coastal zone of the U.S., and the value of their many pollution prevention programs are particularly valued. NOAA Scientific Support Coordinators work closely with federal and state pollution preparedness and response organizations, private companies, other scientific bodies, and community leaders to raise awareness and respond to incidents involving the discharge of oil, hazardous materials or harmful contaminants into the waters of the U.S. including its offshore waters. (Magnien 2016 – pers. comm.). The United States Coast Guard also provides oversight and enforcement of fisheries. It’s vessels and aircraft actively patrol the U.S. coastal zone as well as international waters to ensure compliance with laws, regulations, and to enforce international safety, security, and environmental conventions and treaties, including fisheries.

International Regulation

International regulatory regimes are also in place to prevent the discharge of oil, hazardous materials, or waste into the world’s oceans from commercial vessels though it was not until the 1990’s that plastics were added to the ban. Implemented by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an entity within the United Nations, laws and regulations related to safety, security, navigation, and prevention and control of pollution from ships are established by international agreements to protect vessels as well as the oceans. which ban by international convention.

In the mid 1990’s, the IMO added the ‘discharge of ‘garbage’ and ‘goods in packaged form’ into the ocean from commercial vessels to its list of banned items. This is consistent with the organization’s belief that countries working towards sustainable socio-economic development, and enhancement of marine environment protection, will have a positive impact and improve the quality of waters and coasts while also increasing tourism, providing greater access to protein through improved, uncontaminated fish catches, and integrated coastal zone management. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) also established an Integrated Technical Co-operation Programme (ITCP), for the sole purpose of helping build institutional capacity by assisting countries in building up their human and institutional capacities for uniform and effective compliance with the organization’s regulatory framework (IMO 2016).

Impact of Commercial Fishing

Fishing vessels represent a significant proportion of the global vessel fleet. Derelict fishing gear (DFG) is a significant source of marine debris at sea. This includes nets, lines, crab/shrimp pots, and other recreational or commercial fishing equipment that has been lost, abandoned, or discarded in the marine environment. Modern fishing gear is generally made of synthetic materials and metal. Lost or abandoned gear is, therefore, likely to remain in the environment for a long time (Richardson et al., 2015).

In a recent study considered at the 2016 Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment (SPREP) Programme Meeting of Officials in Apia, Samoa an investigation into over 8,000 marine pollution incidents reported by fisheries observers over the past 10 years indicates that fishing vessels are responsible for significant amounts of marine pollution in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (Richardson et al., 2015). The authors evaluated more than 8,000 pollution incidents by purse seine vessels within the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of 18 Pacific island countries and territories, and in international waters.

In a separate effort, the Office of Response and Restoration at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) evaluated the impact of plastics and debris along the Hawaiian Coral Reefs and found significant accumulations. NOAA subsequently removed 14 metric tons of debris from the reefs. The majority of the debris removed was plastics and abandoned fishing gear (NOAA 2013).

The lesser known, yet as, if not more, destructive aspect of fishing is ‘ghost fishing’. This is the entanglement of fish in the ocean when lost or discarded fishing gear that is no longer under a fisherman’s control continues to trap and kill fish, crustaceans, marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds. Derelict fishing nets and traps can continue to ghost fish for years once they are lost under the water’s surface.

Ghost fishing can impose a variety of harmful impacts, including: killing target and non-target organisms, including endangered and protected species; causing damage to underwater habitats, such as coral reefs and benthic fauna; economic losses from target species mortalities and replacement costs; and contributing to marine pollution (U.S. Department of Commerce 2016). An estimated 100,000 marine mammal deaths per year in the North Pacific are a result of entanglement in plastic nets and fishing line and 44% of all seabirds are known to ingest plastic (Moore 2008).

[In Part IV of this four-part series, available on May 14th, Kulisch concludes this series with a discussion of the alternatives and initiatives for preventing plastic pollution in ocean environments.]


Gail Kulisch is an alumni of the Executive Master of Natural Resources program at Virginia Tech and the Owner and Managing Principal of BTG Ventures LLC, which supports development and implementation of safety and security initiatives, provides leadership and technical expertise to disaster response operations, and advances environmental stewardship.  A retired Coast Guard Officer, Kulisch served 28 years on Active Duty, including assignments in marine environmental protection, response, and remediation before retiring from military service and forming her own consulting organization.  She is a 1983 graduate of Holy Cross College (B.A. in Chemistry) and earned a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering from UCLA in 1990.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: IPP Photo Archive –; Ingrid Taylar; USFWS; NOAAColleen Proppe; and Thomas Haeusler.


  • Cho, R. 2011. Our Oceans: A Plastic Soup. <> accessed November 2016.
  • Gurria, A. 2016. Resource productivity and the three R’s. Presented at the G8 Environment Ministers Meeting, Kobe, Japan. <> accessed November 2016.
  • Goldberg, R. 2016. Scientists Find That 30% of Global Fish Catch is Unreported. < research-and-analysis/analysis/2016/01/19/scientists-find-that-30-percent-of-global-fish-catch-is-unreported> accessed November 2016.
  • IMO (International Maritime Organization). 2016. <> accessed November 2016.
  • Moore, CJ. 2008. Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing, long-term threat. Environmental Research 108, pp.131-139.
  • International Maritime Organization. International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL. < Ships-(MARPOL).aspx> accessed April 2018.
  • NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). 2013. NOAA Lifts 14 Metric Tons of Fishing Nets and Plastics from Hawaiian Coral Reefs. <> accessed November 2016.
  • Pew Charitable Trusts. 2018. <…/pew-unveils-pioneering-technology-to-help-end-illegal-fishing> accessed April 2018.
  • Pew Charitable Trusts. 2015. Project Eyes on the Seas: Pioneering technology to help end illegal fishing.  <> accessed November 2016.
  • Richardson, K, A. Tabouli, M. Donoghue, and D. Haynes. 2016. Marine Pollution Originating from Purse Seine Fishing Vessel Operations in the Western and Central Pacific Region, 2004-2014. <> accessed November 2016.
  • Shen 2011.
  • Song, JH, RJ Murphy, R Narayan, and G Davies. 2009. Biodegradable and compostable alternatives to conventional plastics. Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society, 364(1526):2127-2139.
  • US Department of Commerce. 2016. Marine Debris Program. <> accessed November 2016.
  • US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). 2016. WARM Background and Overview. < pdfs/Background_Overview.pdf> accessed November 2016.