Image credit: Eizo Muñoz

The slow and steady oil spill: Plastic pollution

In the early hours of January 15th, 2022, over 10,000 barrels of oil from oil producer REPSOL spilled into the ocean as a tanker pumped crude oil into a refinery just off the coast of Peru. The resulting black slick was pushed north by wind and currents tarring 25 beaches, polluting three protected marine reserves, causing significant harm to wildlife and local communities. 

Oil floating on the ocean surface, known as oil slick, is a major environmental problem. Following an oil spill the oil distribution is well mapped using satellite imagery (Nature, 2022) and through our understanding of oceanic winds and currents. Oil spills understandably attract significant public concern, owed to the devastating impacts they have on species and local economies. 


There is another spill happening every day, all over the world. Plastic, derived from crude oil, is leaking into the ocean at a staggering rate. Unlike oil spills, it doesn’t strike in one-off events that dominate the news, it’s happening slowly and steadily in background.  

  “The oil spill in the coast of Lima generated an important environmental empathy in Lima´s inhabitants. Sadly, the flows of plastic waste into the ocean, that ironically originate from oil, have shown little or no empathy from the citizens” – Dr Ramzy Kahhat 

Flows of plastic that make their way to the ocean and float on the surface like oil are a significant environmental issue, “costing an estimated USD $13 billion in global damages yearly” (Nicola Beaumont, PPSS network & Plymouth Marine Laboratory). However, unlike oil the spread of plastic pollution (or plastic slick) is poorly mapped, meaning that plastic waste entering the ocean from land is unaccounted for (van Sebille et all, 2020).  

Image credits: Eizo Muñoz

Microplastics are persistent pollutants derived from oil. Transforming fossil fuels into plastic produces enormous amounts of greenhouse gases with approximately 36% of all plastics produced being used in packaging, including single-use plastic products for food and beverage containers (UNEP- Beat Plastic Pollution) which are used for a few minutes or seconds before being thrown away. 

Both climate change and plastic pollution are inextricably linked, and stopping the pump on oil will simultaneously help us turn off the plastic tap. Both climate change and plastic pollution are complex issues that compound one another they transcend physical and political boundaries, making the resolution and communication of the issue challenging. This can result in it being difficult to elicit individual behaviour change as it can feel overwhelming. Our approach to tackling plastic pollution must also include tackling our reliance on fossil fuels, so our language and approach to communicating plastic pollution could be borrowed from the way we talk about oil. 

One thing that we do know is that we must move towards a circular economy; “the recent Global Plastics Treaty  provides an opportunity for us to make funds available for industries to transition to providing and using packaging based on circular economic models” (Lucia Norris, PPSS Partner), putting pressure on the polluters to make changes which in turn helps individuals make pro-environmental choices. Creating less single-use plastic, less reliance on oils, and in turn protecting and increasing the climate resilience of our oceans. 

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