No one is suggesting that the average person is malevolently upending their garbage bins into the nearest waterway. However, urban and stormwater runoff, as well as sewer overflow, can transport land-based litter to the great big blue.
Countries like the United States and Japan export much of their plastic waste to other countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, and until recently, China. Though it’s not clear precisely how much of this garbage ends up in the ocean, there are immense discrepancies between the amount of waste the importing countries can responsibly accommodate, and the amount that they receive. The countries least equipped to manage waste and recycling are largely the ones taking it in.
But, wait! You do your due diligence like any decent global citizen and pop your plastics into the recycling bin. Your recycling can’t be part of the plastic that ends up in the ocean, right? Wrong.
How recycled plastic ends up in the ocean
Recycling plastic is complicated, to say the least. Not all plastic even is recyclable — remember the recent push to discontinue the use of plastic straws? Coffee cups are only recyclable by a particular machine because the plastic coating on the inside that keeps your latte nice and warm needs to be separated from the paper on the outside.
And while some single-material items — that jar of peanut butter on which so many sack lunches depend, for example — are recyclable, they can’t have any food residue on or in them.
Each time you toss out an empty bottle of sriracha without rinsing it thoroughly, chances are that it ends up in a poorly-managed landfill and, ultimately, dumped into the ocean where it is broken into tiny pieces by the current and eaten by an innocent manatee.