*This post first appeared on The PediaBlog on March 30, 2015.
You’ve probably heard of ocean vortexes of trash (mostly plastic), or “garbage patches,” created by currents carrying floating debris around the world. A new study, published last month in Science, estimates that 19.4 BILLION pounds (8.8 million metric tons) of plastic waste (food wrappers, beverage bottles, bags, toys, and other bits of plastic) ended up in the world’s oceans, at the sea surface and on the sea floor, and on remote beaches and in arctic sea ice, in 2010. Elif Koc reviewed the University of Georgia study:
The study offers the most comprehensive estimate yet compiled of the scale and geographic distribution of plastic pollution, with headline-grabbing plastic “garbage patches” showing up in major ocean basins in recent years. Unlike paper and other wastes, plastic is not biodegradable, and everything from water bottles to food containers are winding up in the world’s oceans, where they linger for decades, harming wildlife.
John Schwartz says the study’s main author expects the amount of ocean trash to double in the next 10 years:
The paper’s middle figure of eight million, she said, is the equivalent of “five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world” — a visualization that, she said, “sort of blew my mind.”
By 2025, she said, the amount of plastic projected to be entering the oceans would constitute the equivalent of 10 bags per foot of coastline.
Does that blow your mind, too? Maybe this will too: On average, Americans generate about five pounds of trash every, single day, with 13% of that being plastic.
The researchers also ranked the top 20 countries (out of 192) that contribute to the global plastic burden coalescing in the ocean gyres. Most of the plastic trash comes from people living within 30 miles (50 kilometers) from coastlines, with China leading the pack:
According to the estimate, China tops the list, producing as much as 3.5 million metric tons of marine debris each year. The United States, which generates as much as 110,000 metric tons of marine debris a year, came in at No. 20.
While Americans generate 2.6 kilograms of waste per person per day, or 5.7 pounds, to China’s 1.10 kilograms, the United States ranked lower on the list because of its more efficient waste management, Professor Jambeck said.
We’ve known about these garbage patches collecting in the oceans for years now. Finding alternatives to plastic for the daily products we use, eliminating single-use plastic packaging, improving trash-collection methods, and promoting recycling everywhere are the most important ways to prevent these garbage patches from forming in the first place. While cleaning up shorelines can be a feasible solution to collecting coastal plastic, clearing the ocean itself of plastic is not. And once in the sea, Schwartz says, plastic breaks down into substances that are toxic to marine life — and to humans:
Exposed to saltwater and sun, and the jostling of the surf, the debris shreds into tiny pieces that become coated with toxic substances like PCBs and other pollutants.
Research into the marine food chain suggests that fish and other organisms consume the bite-size particles and may reabsorb the toxic substances. Those fish are eaten by other fish, and by people.
Cleaning up the plastic once it is in the oceans is impractical; only a portion of it floats, while most disappears, and presumably what does not wash ashore settles to the bottom.
Any collection system fine enough to capture the smaller particles would also pick up enormous amounts of marine life. So the best option, Professor Jambeck and others suggest, is to improve waste management ashore.
Chris Mooney looks at another study estimating that there are over five trillion pieces of plastic in the Earth’s oceans and says, “Good job, humans”:
“What we are witnessing in the global ocean is a growing threat of toxin-laden microplastics cycling through the entire marine ecosystem,” commented lead study author Eriksen of the Five Gyres Institute.
***UPDATE*** — 3/30/18: A group of Dutch scientists reported this week that the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” located between California and Hawaii is now three times the size of France and “is growing exponentially and at an increasing rate than surrounding waters.” Chris Mooney describes the “patch” as “a large area with high volumes of plastics, one in which concentrations increase markedly as you move toward its center”:
The Garbage Patch has been described before. But this new survey estimates that the mass of plastic contained there is four to 16 times larger than previously supposed, and it is continuing to accumulate because of ocean currents and careless humans both onshore and offshore.
Aside from dangerous local and regional air pollution and water quality problems threatening our health, and the existential planetary climate crisis putting all of us at risk, we now must also turn our attention to solving the global catastrophe of plastic entering the ecosystem and affecting all life forms.