A turtle tries to eat a plastic cup: consumer items such as food containers make up the largest share of litter origins, the study found. Photograph: Paulo Oliveira/Alamy Stock Photo
Plastic items from takeaway food and drink dominate the litter in the world’s oceans, according to the most comprehensive study to date.
Single-use bags, plastic bottles, food containers and food wrappers are the four most widespread items polluting the seas, making up almost half of the human-made waste, the researchers found. Just 10 plastic products, also including plastic lids and fishing gear, accounted for three-quarters of the litter, due to their widespread use and extremely slow degradation.
The scientists said identifying the key sources of ocean plastic made it clear where action was needed to stop the stream of litter at its source. They called for bans on some common throwaway items and for producers to be made to take more responsibility.
Action on plastic straws and cotton buds in Europe was welcome, the researchers said, but risked being a distraction from tackling far more common types of litter. Their results were based on carefully combining 12m data points from 36 databases across the planet.
“We were not surprised about plastic being 80% of the litter, but the high proportion of takeaway items did surprise us, which will not just be McDonald’s litter, but water bottles, beverage bottles like Coca-Cola, and cans,” said Carmen Morales-Caselles, at the University of Cádiz, Spain, who led the new research.