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8 maps show plastic’s impact on the world’s oceans — and what’s being done about it

Pathways to Pollution (Image 1 of 8)

One of the major challenges of addressing plastic pollution in the world’s oceans is the fact that sources of entry are multiple and widespread.

Graphic by GRID-Arendal and Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni and reprinted with permission.

Mismanagement (Image 2 of 8)

The global production of petroleum-derived plastic has increased dramatically, from 1.5 million metric tons (1.7 million tons) in 1950 to more than 300 million metric tons (330 million tons) in 2014. If the current production trend — approximately 5 percent increase per year — continues, another 33 billion metric tons (36 billion tons) of plastic will accumulate around the planet by 2050, further driving the need for better methods of collection and recycling.

Graphic by GRID-Arendal and Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni and reprinted with permission.

Capturing Plastic at the Source (Image 3 of 8)

Not surprisingly, countries with limited wastewater treatment and municipal solid waste facilities often see larger amounts of plastic debris entering the ocean from their shores.

Graphic by GRID-Arendal and Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni and reprinted with permission.

Does It Float? (Image 4 of 8)

In terms of buoyancy, not all plastic is created equal. Absent from the graphic shown here are the ubiquitous fragments of micro- and nano-plastic plaguing the world’s oceans.

Graphic by GRID-Arendal and Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni and reprinted with permission.

Plastic Currents (Image 5 of 8)

The geographic distribution of marine plastic debris is strongly influenced by the entry points and different ocean transport pathways, which are in turn determined by the density of plastic debris coupled with prevailing currents, wind and waves.

Graphic by GRID-Arendal and Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni and reprinted with permission.

Entangled Marine Life (Image 6 of 8)

Entanglement can cause death due to drowning, starvation, strangulation, or cuts and injury that cause infection. Much of the damage to marine life of this nature is caused by discarded fishing equipment — so-called “ghost fishing.” Studies of scarring on whales from the Gulf of Maine indicate that more than 80 percent of right whales and 50 percent of humpback whales have experienced entanglement in fishing gear.

Graphic by GRID-Arendal and Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni and reprinted with permission.

Marine Debris Ingestion (Image 7 of 8)

The ability of plastic particles in the ocean to attract organic chemicals that don’t dissolve, which include many well-known toxic substances, has led to a growing number of studies looking at plastics as a source of toxic chemicals in marine organisms.

Graphic by GRID-Arendal and Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni and reprinted with permission.

The Way Forward (Image 8 of 8)

Legislation and policies aimed at reducing the release of litter on land and at sea will help reduce the amount marine debris entering the world’s oceans.

Graphic by GRID-Arendal and Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni and reprinted with permission.


The world’s oceans are awash in plastic pollution, and as these maps and charts show, the situation is poised to worsen unless drastic changes take place.

Over the coming decades global plastic production is slated to increase nearly sixfold, and collection and recycling systems in many parts of the world already are struggling to keep up with the proliferation of plastic products and associated waste.

Broadly speaking, plastic pollution comes from three main sources: single-use applications such as food packaging and disposable consumer goods; long-lasting plastic items, including pipes and construction materials; and durable consumer products such as electronics and furniture.

The impacts of plastic — and in particular, microplastic — on marine life can be devastating. Hundreds of species of seabirds, turtles, seals, sea lions, whales and fish have suffered entanglement or death due to plastic pollution in recent decades.

This collection of maps and charts prepared by Norway-based GRID-Arendal — a United Nations Environment Programme affiliate and partner with a mission of creating environmental knowledge to enable positive change — explains how plastic ends up in the world’s oceans and explores steps being taken to reverse this trend. View Ensia homepage

Add Your Comments
  • Frank Mancuso Aug. 26th, 2016
    There is only solution, every outflow must be closed. It's not our fault or plastics it's governments.
  • Dereka Ogden Sep. 1st, 2016
    We the users, of plastics must push for plastic made from biodegradable materials. We are able to do this, but the will isn't there. We must lobby governments and contacts manufacturers to change their ways to end this situation as there seems to be no way to get the plastics out of the ocean. Since they eventually break down into micro plastics, it will increase the problem on the ocean floors, killing countless species.
    What a disgraceful species we humans are!
  • avra cohen Sep. 3rd, 2016
    The proliferation of bottled water has added greatly to plastic pollution. It would be wonderful if organizations like the WCS that operate public parks, would get rid of the vending machines that dispense these products and put in more water fountains instead.
    Regulations should restrict plastics to durable goods by taxing it heavily when used in disposable products like beverage containers.
  • Arthur op den Brouw Nov. 26th, 2017
    I agree. More should be done to prevent plastic leaking into the environment. And biodegradable plastic and other materials where possible should be used. It’s importantbto note though that there are technologies becoming available that make it possible to return all types of plastic back into the original oil it came from. Chemical Recycling is close to being feasible commercially and it has the potential to stop the tap and prevent more plastic going into the seas. See www.recychingtechnologies.co.uk. They are producing a machine which produce a synthetic oil from end of life plastic. This is very positive and they deserve all the support they can get.
  • Paul Rendle-Barnes Dec. 4th, 2017
    All of the ideas are valid, but just excuses really, the guilty are humans,
    We need a revolutionary change both in our attitude to waste, and our acceptance that it is acceptable to throw "away" items that have been mined/ produce / made into products.
    There is no "Away"
    We have 1 planet.
    Our ignorance and lack of care as a species will be the end of everything unless we act NOW and change.
  • Andrew Shaw Jan. 31st, 2019
    It turns out that five countries are the leading contributors to this crisis. And all are in Asia. Asia is adopting Western-style appetites for consumer junk. As Asian economies rise, people have more cash to blow on Marlboros and Sprites at 7-Eleven. But the junk these habits produce often doesn’t end up in legit landfills. China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are spewing out as much as 60 percent of the plastic waste that enters the world’s seas. If we can limit the outflow from these countries then it would drastically reduce plastic pollution reaching the worlds oceans.
  • Carolann Jungers Nov. 12th, 2020
    Are you familiar with 4OCEAN, a for-profit out of Boca Raton Florida, I recently studied their important work retrieving plastic waste on the Motogua River in Puerto Barrios. I would like your assessment of the value of their work in cleaning up the Motogua watershed , mainly of plastic bottles. Thank You!
  • Random Somebody Jan. 25th, 2022
    Wow.. That's bad
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