: Plastic Waste in the Aquatic Environment: Impacts and Management

Plastic Waste in the Aquatic Environment

Impacts and Management[1]

Isangedigbi Asuquo Isangedigbi, Gift Samuel David and Ofonmbuk Ime Obot


  • 2.1 Introduction 16
  • 2.2 Plastic Waste in the Aquatic Ecosystem 18
  • 2.3 Impacts of Plastic Waste on the Biota of the Aquatic Ecosystem 19
  • 2.3.1 Impact on Faunal Communities 21
  • Coastal and Marine Birds 23
  • Fish 24
  • Mammals 24
  • Reptiles 25
  • Invertebrates 25
  • 2.3.2 Impact on Floral Communities 28
  • 2.3.3 Invasive Species 28
  • 2.3.4 Ecotoxicology 29
  • 2.4 Management and Preventive Measures 29
  • 2.4.1 Prevention and Control 29
  • 2.4.2 Management Procedures 30
  • Public Awareness and Education 30
  • Recycling of Plastics through Environmentally Sound Manners 30
  • Establishment of a Waste Stock Exchange (WSE) 31
  • Conversion of Plastics Waste into Artifacts 31
  • Encourage the Use of Bio-Based and Biodegradable Plastics 31
  • Impose Levies on Plastic Shopping Bags 32
  • Increment in the Thickness of Plastic Films 32
  • Household Segregation, Reuse and Recycling 32
  • Energy Recovery 33
  • Conversion of Plastics Waste into Liquid Fuel 33
  • Plasma Pyrolysis Technology 33
  • Legislative Measures 34
  • 2.5 Conclusions 34

References 35


Plastics are synthetic polymers, and they have only existed for just over a century. Plastic is a material consisting of any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds that are malleable and can be molded into solid objects [1]. Plastics are produced by the conversion of natural products or by synthesis from primary chemicals, generally from oil, natural gas or coal [2]. Plastics are typically organic polymers of high molecular mass, but they often contain other substances. Most plastics are made from synthetic resins (polymers) through the industrial process of polymerization [1].

In contemporary society, plastic has attained a pivotal status, with extensive commercial, industrial, medicinal and municipal applications [3]. It ranks among the most widely used materials in the world [4]. In the last 60 years, plastic has become a useful and versatile material with a wide range of applications [5,6]; see Table 2.1. Over 300 million tons of new plastics are used every year. Half of these are used just once and usually for less than 12 minutes. Eight million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every year. So much is getting into the ocean that in some places, these plastic particles outnumber plankton by a ratio of 26:1 [7]. A UNEP report [8] grossly underestimated the amount of plastic debris entering the environment at 8 million pieces per day. However, it should be noted that none of these estimates are licensed to any particular source and should be treated with caution. The world’s oceans are diverse and immense; hence, to get a handle on the estimated average level of plastic waste is a very difficult task. About 49% of all produced plastics are buoyant, which gives them the ability to float, and thereby travel on ocean currents to any place in the world [9]. Figure 2.1 show how plastics are littered on the aquatic environment. Annual plastic production has increased dramatically from 1.5 million tons in the 1950s to approximately 280 million tons in 2011 [5]. Annual plastic production is estimated to hit 400 million tons by the year 2020 [10]; this is depicted in Figure 2.2. The most common plastics are polyethylene (PE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene (PP) [10].

TABLE 2.1 Types of Plastics and Common Use

Polymer Type


Polyethylene terephthalate

Fizzy drink and water bottles, salad trays

High density polyethylene

Milk bottles, bleach, cleaners and most shampoo bottles

Polyvinyl chloride

Pipes, fittings, window and door frames (rigid PVC), thermal insulation (PVC foam) and automotive parts

Low density polyethylene

Carrier bags, bin liners and packaging films


Margarine tubs, microwaveable meal trays, also produced as fibers and filaments for carpets, wall coverings and vehicle upholstery


Yoghurt pots, foam hamburger boxes and egg cartons, plastic cutlery, protective packaging for electronic goods and toys. Insulating material in the building and construction industry.

Unallocated references

Polycarbonate, which is often used in glazing for the aircraft industry

Source: Adapted and modified from Koushal V et al. bit J Waste Resour 2014,4(1), 134-139.

Examples plastic litter in the aquatic environment

FIGURE 2.1 Examples plastic litter in the aquatic environment: From left to right, plastic debris on the ocean seabed, surface water and beach. (From Lytle GM. When the mermaids cry: The great plastic tide. Available on: http://www.plastic-pollution.org, accessed on 4 January 2018.)

Evolution of world plastic production, in million tons, from 1950 to 2020. (From Plastics - the Fact 2014. An analysis of European plastics production, demand and waste data. Available online

FIGURE 2.2 Evolution of world plastic production, in million tons, from 1950 to 2020. (From Plastics - the Fact 2014. An analysis of European plastics production, demand and waste data. Available online: http://2015.igem.Org/wiki/images/e/ef/IGEM_Pasteur_ Plastics_the_I, accessed on January 19, 2017.)

According to the Plastic Ocean Foundation [7], the typical characteristics that render plastics so useful relate primarily to the fact that they are both flexible and durable. These characteristics become handy when plastics are used in everyday life; but when they are discarded into the environment, they become a nuisance. Due to their nearly indestructible morphology and the toxins they contain, plastics can seriously affect ecosystems [11]. The biggest mass of plastics debris occurs in the oceans major gyres [12]. Therein, the rotation of vortex centers, where it accumulates currently, the plastics debris patch in the North Pacific Ocean covers an area as large as France and Spain together [12]. This debris affects all ocean life, and because we are at the top of the food chain, it affects humans too [4]. It has now been several decades since the use of plastics exploded, and there is evidence that current approaches to production, use, transport and disposal of plastic materials caused, and are still causing, serious effects on wildlife, and this is not sustainable [4].

The objective of this review is to identify the sources and fate of plastic wastes on the aquatic ecosystem, to examine its impact on the aquatic biota and to suggest ways to ameliorate this problem.

  • [1] Previously published in Environment, Vol 2,2018. © 2018 by the author(s), licensee International Technologyand Science Publications (ITS), this work for open access publication is under the Creative CommonsAttribution International License (CC BY 4.0). (http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by/4.0/)
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