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From lost fishing nets down to microscopic particles from cosmetics, every piece of plastic ever produced is still on this planet. An astonishing 300 million tonnes of plastic items are produced worldwide every year, it never biodegrades and scientists estimate that as much as four per cent washes into or is dumped at sea every year.

Once in the oceans, plastic may get broken down by sunlight and wave action into millimetre-sized microplastic debris, but this can be just as much, or more, of a hazard to marine mammals, seabirds, fish and other creatures as they can mistake it for food.

But with a growing number of campaigns about plastic pollution, hard-hitting documentaries exposing the problem, and inventions to help collect debris, we are finally paying attention to the far-reaching effects of plastic pollution. As consumers, we all have the potential to make a positive impact, and as sailors we can play an important part.

We need to clean up our oceans. Biologist Anna Turns investigates the global scale of plastic pollution, while Toby Hodges looks at how the top sailors and event organizers are leading the charge for change…

So what is the scale of the problem and what can we all do to help keep our oceans clean?

Richard Thompson is professor of marine biology at the University of Plymouth, heading up the International Marine Litter Research Unit. He first coined the phrase ‘microplastics’ in 2004. Thompson is optimistic that we can gradually change the way we produce, use and dispose of plastic but he says there’s no quick fix: “We can’t manage without plastics because they bring too many societal benefits, so going plastic-free isn’t the answer.

“It’s complex but solvable. Ultimately, it’s about designing and using plastic differently. It’s crucial that we design plastic items with end-of-life in mind, especially single-use items that are used so fleetingly and yet make up 40 per cent of plastic produced.

“Single-use plastics is a key proportion of marine litter and therefore a great starting place to address the issue of ocean plastics,” says Thompson.

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