What is Ocean-Bound Plastic — And How Can We Stop it?

By Tom Swallow on January 30, 2024
What is Ocean-Bound Plastic — And How Can We Stop it?
Tom Swallow
Tom Swallow

Tom Swallow is a content writer and editor in B2B sustainability. Much of his work revolves around supply chains, understanding how businesses can become circular while addressing their wider stakeholder impacts. He was previously the Editor-in-Chief of Sustainability Magazine, and contributed to numerous corporate titles.

Around 500 million tons of plastic waste is produced every year, according to Our World in Data — and mismanagement is one of the main reasons this overwhelming amount of plastic pollutes our oceans. 

Of course, the effects of plastic use can’t be undone overnight, so the world has deployed a new type of thinking — the circular economy

In terms of ocean-bound plastic (OBP), this means extracting it from the world around us and injecting it back into the production of our favorite products and necessities. 

Here, we look at the ins and outs of ocean-bound plastic, including what it is, its negative environmental impact, and the drive to incorporate it into our consumer goods. 


Plastic items washed up on a beach amongst seaweed with the ocean in the background


What’s on this page? 

01 | What is ocean-bound plastic (OBP)? 
02 | Types of ocean-bound plastic  
03 | What are the grades of ocean-bound plastic? 
04 | How does plastic get to the ocean?
05 | How does ocean-bound plastic impact the environment? 
06 | What are the solutions to ocean-bound plastic? 
07 | Summary 
08 | FAQs 


What is ocean-bound plastic (OBP)?

As the name suggests, ocean-bound plastic is plastic that could potentially end up in our oceans — this generates roughly 80% of plastic marine litter, according to the Ocean Bound Plastic Certification. 

Although a very straightforward term, ocean-bound plastic stretches beyond littering on beaches. In fact, it’s often a result of mainland plastic consumption

While many might believe we can just recycle more to solve the problem, the reality is that a large percentage of marine litter actually comes from non-commercially recyclable plastic materials. Greenpeace paints a clear picture of this, reporting that only 5%–6% of plastics were actually recycled in 2022.

This leads to more questions about how we consume materials and the products that companies place on shelves. Ultimately, recycling facilities struggle to cope with such a high quantity of waste, as well as varying types of plastic.



Types of ocean-bound plastic

Do you find yourself wondering how we eliminate ocean-bound plastic? Well, it's important for us to first determine how plastic enters our waterways — and here are the most common ways: 

  1. Potential OBP: This includes plastic waste that’s collected from natural spaces located within 50 kilometers (km) of coastlines. According to Our World in Data, just shy of 21 million tons of plastic is leaked into the environment, while 6 million is allowed to lay among rivers and coastlines, which brings us to the next type of plastic waste
  2. Waterway OBP: This includes plastic waste that’s disposed of into — or within 200 meters of — rivers that will eventually lead to the ocean. Plastic is typically no less harmful in this state, as it already contaminates the environment
  3. Shoreline OBP: This includes plastic waste that’s disposed of along the coastline, within 200 meters of the shoreline. This has a direct impact on the ocean and is often a result of consumption in high-traffic coastal areas. It’s also a failure on the population's behalf to dispose of recreational, food, and drink waste correctly
  4. Fishing material: As the name suggests, this is plastic used in fishing nets, cages, and other equipment to carry out commercial fishing operations — a direct impact of industrial waste. Our World in Data states that roughly a third of all plastic debris in our oceans is discarded by the fishing industry


What are the grades of ocean-bound plastic?

To understand the types of ocean-bound plastic, we also need to look at the different grades of plastic to see how it gets from our households to the ocean. 

The ‘grading’ system is used to categorize certain sizes of plastic debris. Any materials visible to the naked eye are known as macroplastics, while others are much smaller — if not microscopic. 

The majority of macroplastics that end up in the ocean are a result of local littering. However, all homes — wherever located — contribute indirectly to microplastic waste. The problem was first discovered over a decade ago, and the National Institute of Health (NIH) has since found that textile washing contributed to 35% of all microplastic ocean pollution

While homeowners play their part in recycling waste correctly, this invisible hazard still exists, which causes havoc in the environment and in our food systems — impacting the health of sea life, animals near the coast, and the human population. 

Here are the different categories of plastic grades, according to the NIH

  • Microplastics: Plastic particles that measure less than 2 mm in diameter, and are considered the smallest particles that are relatively non-visible in most circumstances
  • Mesoplastics: Plastic particles from 2-20 mm in diameter
  • Macroplastics: Marine litter that measures greater than 20 mm in diameter


Plastic items washed up on a riverbed with houses and a hilltop in the background


How does plastic get to the ocean?

There are a number of ways the plastic debris finds its way into the ocean, no matter the distance from the coastline. Ocean-based plastic is commonly traced through rivers and other waterways, as a result of littering. 

However, extreme winds whip up plastic debris from landfill sites and unexpectedly transport them to the coast. Also, litter from urban areas makes its way into drainage systems and is carried in water that eventually deposits in the sea. 

According to The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), wind carries macroplastics towards streams and rivers, while rainwater allows another route through drainage systems. 

Microplastics and microfibres can also make their way into greywater systems, which are ultimately consumed by sea life.


How does ocean-bound plastic impact the environment?

Visual pollution, poor health, soil toxicity, and death of wildlife — these are the main ways ocean plastic pollution impacts the environment.

Litter is a burden on everyone, from passers-by to the animals that live in habitats where plastic pollutes. Failure to manage this leads to further issues, such as the breakdown of plastics and contamination of soil and water, which ultimately impacts the health of all life. 

The Ocean Blue Project also cites the impacts of chemicals in plastics on our health, which are linked to a decline in cardiovascular health and reproductive success. You can find out more about this on our page: How Does Plastic Affect Human Health?

The food that we consume — plants, fish, or mammals — also tends to contain plastic, as the particles are so small and difficult to see and easy to ingest. However, the impact on sea life can be much more imminent as commercial fishing debris is known to impact turtles, coastal bird species, and other organisms. 

Microplastics are detrimental to marine animals, causing 100 million deaths each year — in marine mammals, this is 100,000 every year.

One of the most protected animals of the ocean, the sperm whale, can die from ingesting a mere 30 kilograms of plastic (the equivalent of up to 150 plastic bottles), which causes inflammation of its abdominal tissue. Fishing nets, plastic shopping bags, and jerry cans are the key culprits.

In land mammals, the common cause of death is injury or strangulation from fish nets, ropes, and other flexible materials.  



What are the solutions to ocean-bound plastic?

While the tides are seemingly against us, as plastic is still a major problem globally, there are ways that businesses and governments can drive positive changes.

We already see an increase in initiatives, as companies understand their role in reducing waste nationally, and across borders. From reduction to innovation, here are the key actions to take to eliminate ocean-based plastic.

Implement better waste management systems

Mismanagement is a major concern for all countries, particularly low-income nations that battle the cost of waste management. 

Often these countries are forced to incinerate plastic among many other types of waste. The alternative is littering in the open environment. 

Take Sub-Saharan Africa as an example. The United Nations (UN) estimates the region poorly processes 90% of its plastic waste. The WWF says this is a result of extremely high costs — often 10 times higher in low-income countries. 

Recover plastic in high-risk areas

More attention should be given to litter in high-risk areas, such as coastlines, waterways, and areas that lack effective waste management systems — particularly on the waste managers’ side. 

Looking specifically at commercial fishing waste, for example, some companies already collect waste from the industry to produce recycled materials and products. This type of business model is known as a circular economy — a cyclical approach to product design and manufacturing. 

Reduce plastic consumption

This is the solution that governments have tried to implement for decades, yet there are still thousands of plastics in items that we use on a daily basis. Our favorite brands, supermarket chains, and suppliers are researching plastic packaging to create more responsible versions for mass production. 

So, what can you do in the meantime? Reducing plastic consumption can be a very difficult task for those that shop in supermarkets, and even local butchers and greengrocers. To avoid littering oceans with new microplastics and debris from single-use plastic bags, businesses offer ‘bags for life’ to influence customers to bring their own.

Continue developing recycling innovations

Have you ever wondered how some plastics are deemed ‘sustainable’ on packaging? More companies are beginning to see the value that recycling can bring to them, their products, and therefore their customers.

By incorporating materials like 100% OBP in their products, they close the loop in the circular economy — leaving no waste behind and ensuring no further plastic is produced for their products. 



The impact of ocean-bound plastic solidifies the need to reduce the use of new plastics in production and reuse plastics that plague our environment as a whole. 

While many things are happening in the background to reduce and reuse ocean-bound plastic, the situation bleeds into all aspects of our lives, ending up in our oceans. 

At CleanHub, we’re committed to helping brands improve their environmental impact and work toward a more circular economy. Want to get involved? Get in touch with our experts today to learn about how you can reduce your business’s plastic footprint.



What does 100% ocean-bound plastic mean? 

100% ocean-bound plastic is when a product is designed and manufactured using only plastic extracted from our oceans. 100% OBP can be sourced from specialists who remove and process ocean plastics to deliver reusable materials, often in pellet form.

Is ocean-bound plastic good or bad? 

Depending on the circumstance, ocean-bound plastic is bad for the environment for the reasons mentioned in this article (i.e. ocean pollution, contamination of waterways, and poor health). However, 100% OBP in manufacturing products means that the company has taken plastics out of the ocean and recycled them into goods.

Is ocean-bound plastic recyclable? 

Provided it’s not incinerated, plastic can be recycled multiple times, depending on its composition. Companies that use 100% ocean-bound plastics in their products have sourced recycled materials from reputable providers, who themselves extracted plastics from the ocean.

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