Plastic Waste in the Ocean

Plastic waste on a beach in Norway.
Bo Eide, via Flickr

What happens to all the plastic waste in our world? Liz Waid and Colin Lowther look at the problem of plastic waste in the ocean.

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Voice 1  

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Liz Waid.

Voice 2  

And I’m Colin Lowther. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1  

Imagine a plastic bottle. Maybe it is a plastic bottle filled with Coca-Cola, or water, or another cool good-tasting drink. Imagine that you finish the cool drink. You throw the bottle away. Along with other waste, this particular bottle travels to the ocean. The sunlight and water work together to break the plastic bottle into smaller and smaller pieces. The ocean’s currents carry the pieces to many different places. But after a time, it gathers with other plastic waste. But what happens to it after that? It stays in the ocean, floating. There, it harms sea animals and pollutes the water.

Voice 2  

Millions of tons of plastic waste have already gone into the world’s oceans. This waste comes from countries all around the world. It may come from land or boats. But all of it comes from people. Plastic waste is not a natural part of the sea. Today’s Spotlight is on plastic waste and its effect on the ocean.

Voice 1  

When plastic enters the ocean, some of it sinks to the bottom. Other plastic starts to photodegrade. That is, the sun and ocean water break the plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. But it never disappears. The particles of plastic are extremely small. People cannot see them. But scientists can test the water and find the plastic particles in it.

Voice 2  

Much of this plastic waste gathers in areas of the oceans called gyres. A gyre is an area of water where the ocean currents naturally move in a giant circle, or spiral. There are 5 major gyres in earth’s oceans. The most famous gyre full of plastic waste is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. People cannot see the Garbage Patch from satellite photography. They may not even be able to see it when they are in it! Many of the plastic pieces in the Garbage Patch are extremely small. They do not just float on the surface. They are concentrated in the water.

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Because the plastic pieces are so small, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is difficult to measure. But it is very big. Scientists estimate that the Garbage Patch covers up to 15 million square kilometres.

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Scientists have studied the effect of this plastic on the animals in the sea. Richard Thompson studies animals that live in the ocean. He told the news organization NPR about a recent study. The study looked at the Dublin Bay Prawn. This is a kind of small lobster that lives in the north-eastern Atlantic Ocean. He said:

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“This study showed that over 80% of some populations had small amounts of plastic in their stomachs. Similarly, if we look at ocean birds, we find that up to 95% of some populations have got plastic in their stomach.”

Voice 1   

Chris Jordan is a photographer. He has documented the effects of plastic on albatross chicks. He found these baby albatross birds in the Midway Atoll. This area is far out in the Pacific Ocean. All of the baby albatrosses were dead and decaying. Jordan took photographs of their dead remains. The pictures are shocking to see. Inside the skeletons there are many plastic pieces. The mother birds brought the plastic back to their nests, thinking it was food. The birds starved, because they ate this plastic instead of real food.

Voice 2  

Cleaning this plastic from the ocean seems like an impossible problem. There is so much plastic. The pieces are big and small. And it is everywhere in the ocean. But people have tried to solve this problem for years. Many have ideas for machines that will clean the ocean. The most recent is a 19-year-old boy named Boyan Slat. He calls his machine the Ocean Clean-up Array.

Voice 1  

The Array would rest on the water and catch the plastic pieces, leaving animals safely in the ocean. Slat believes the Array can clear plastic from a gyre in about five years. But Slat and his team are still building and testing the Array.

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When Slat announced his idea, newspapers and television media loved his idea. Many of them said that the Array is the greatest hope for cleaning the ocean. But ocean experts do not think this is true. Stiv J. Wilson is the policy director at the five Gyres Institute. Five Gyres is a not-for-profit organization that works to keep the oceans clean. Wilson says simply:

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“The solution starts on land.”

Voice 1 

Other ocean experts agree with him. Many point out that every few years another inventor says he or she can clean the oceans using a specially designed machine. But cleaning up the oceans may not be the most important goal. In his interview with NPR, Robert Thompson explained the problem.

Voice 3 

“Cleaning up is very important because our oceans are heavily polluted with plastic pieces. The problem is, that at this time, we are putting this plastic in so quickly. The amounts are so big that it is going to be almost impossible for us to think about cleaning up as fast as the plastic is going in. So, it is like this. Imagine that you are trying to clean up water from a bathroom floor. If the bath water is overflowing and both taps in the bath and the shower are all running at full speed, it is a waste of time trying to just clean up. You will need to clean up later. But the first thing is to stop the flow of water.”

Voice 2 

So what is the solution? Stiv J. Wilson from Five Gyres warns that the solution is not easy and simple. The Five Gyres website suggests some easy ways to stop plastic pollution. Start by buying less plastic. Instead of using a plastic bag to carry groceries or food, bring your own bag instead. For drinking, use a cup you can fill again and again. But there is more to do too. Wilson writes:

Voice 4 

“The next steps are to get involved in cleanups. Get involved in campaigns to get rid of problem products. Demand that companies take responsibility for their products after people use them. There is a lot to be hopeful for - even if the real solutions do not seem exciting. But if we all take part, there is hope.”

Voice 1 

What do you do with plastic waste? Is it easy to recycle plastic in your community? Tell us what you think. You can leave a comment on our website. Or email us at You can also comment on Facebook at

Voice 2 

The writer of this program was Liz Waid. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This program is called, ‘Plastic Waste in the Ocean’.

Voice 1 

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.


What do you do with plastic waste? Is it easy to recycle plastic in your community?


Avatar Spotlight
Mss Flamboyant
said on August 26, 2014

Not only is plastic waste in the ocean our the most pressing problem. Energy waste, water waste also affect environment. The best solution is that government should raise companies tax which packaging by plastic. Besides, consumer had better take care about nature. We build green earth together. :)

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said on August 28, 2014

Each of us is responsible to life on earth. We keep the environment clean. We clean up the environment when the environment is polluted. We do all things we can to keep the environment clean. Scientific tests show us that the environment of earth is being heavily polluted. That urges each of us to act for the environment. We stop polluting the environment. We have solutions for cleaning up the environment. We act for beautiful good future. We act for beautiful good things. Our act for the environment is necessary. Our act for the environment is urgent.

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said on August 30, 2014

Nowadays, we can see plastic everywhere around us. The remains of plastic products cause the extreme pollution of environment, especially the oceans. Amazing undersea area is being devastated, many sea animals, fish, birds have already died. This terrible reality represents a necessity to begin to look for any effective solution seriously. I suppose the governments should cooperate with industry companies to demand the better supervision of processing, keeping, removing and subsequent recycling all kinds of plastic. The factories should reduce the amount of waste and treat it more carefully too. All of citizens can also help to pick up plastic, gather it and then carry into collecting containers. In my country, people are used to doing that regularly. All of us should try to prevent our beautiful green planet from another destructive activity to keep it clean, fresh and peaceful particularly.
Thanks for interesting program!

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said on September 07, 2015

I think the solution to solve this problem is each of us act to protect environment in every action daily by reduce use packaging by plastic, classify waste, recycle used plastic , plant green tree , don’t waste water , energy , use product green .... Beside i suppose the government and companies give more program for community have a sense for protect natural , cleaning up and stop polluting the environment. for us and a green earth in future we must act now

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Gerardo Arias
said on September 21, 2016

Interesting article.



Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on September 23, 2016

From: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To:spotlight programme
Subject answer to the questions above
Date: Friday 23, September 2016
São Paulo SP Brazil

Dear Liz Waid, Colin Lowther, and Michio Ozaki:

At first, I want to thank you to bring us readers and learners of English more one great article. Thanks!

Here in Brazil there is a company in which belong to Town Hall to collect all the garbages from homes three times a week.
After, these garbages are taken to a specific place very far from city to be burned.
Also, here in Brazil there are many organizations to recycle the plastics. So, our beaches are very clean due to these services in which are done.
The Brazil northeast’s beaches are cleaner than South Brazil beaches because there is very hot. So, many people travel to the northeast’s beaches to enjoy them during the summer and other seasons, too.
However, in the some brazilian’s beaches in the northeast there are many sharks into them. Boa Viagem and Piedade beaches are the most dangerous brazilian beaches in the northeast due to the sharks which live there.
We do not know why it happens but experts believe that it happens because next to the Piedade beach there is a place in which are killed cows and oxen to sell their meats at many butchershops around the Pernambuco state. So, the remains of the cows and oxen’s meats going into the water and for that reason, the sharks feel the smell of meat and blood.
Therefore, the sharks attack people who are into the water.
Next to beach there are a lot of boards warning the danger to protect people.
I do not eat meat. I eat fish,vegetables, and chicken.

The best regards,
Severino Ramos

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Jaime Velasco Ordoñez
said on April 19, 2018

Hello good morning my own kind of view about this program is that if everybody would have more aware about of the damage which all of us working together could to avoid for do not stain that nature would be a huge step ahead. Thank you for all your programs.

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said on April 19, 2018

In my city, there is a company which collects the waste every day of the week. Twice for organic waste and the others for dry waste (like plastic, cans, paper, etc) to be recycled. People put their waste along the street in small bags or paper boxes. There is no container like in other cities. The problem is that some people put their waste in the wrong day or in the day before. So, if it rains during the night, part of this wastes are taken by the rain and will arrive at our oceans in some way. So, I think the solution is not in big cleaner machines. The solution is in us, simply taking care of how we dispose of our waste.