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There’s Less Plastic in the Ocean Than We Thought and That’s a Bad Thing

There’s Less Plastic in the Ocean Than We Thought and That’s a Bad Thing

According to a new study, 99% of plastic waste that enters the ocean cannot be located. While initially hearing that there’s less plastic in the ocean than we believed sounds like great news, it’s actually a frightening prospect. After all, if the plastic isn’t in the ocean… where is it going?!

A team from the University of Western Australia spent a couple of years sailing around the world in five vessels hoping to accurately record just how much plastic is actually in the ocean. Although researchers expected to discover millions of tons, they were surprised to calculate that they only calculated about 40,000 tons of plastic floating on the surface.

Rather than rejoicing, scientists are concerned that this is a sign that fish and other forms of sea life are eating the plastic. We already know that as the sun breaks down plastic into smaller pieces, that plastic looks more like food to fish and they try to eat it. With so much plastic apparently missing, it’s not a leap to guess that marine life is regularly making a meal of human garbage.

Scientists point out that plastics attract the ocean’s toxins, so when fish eat them, they’re essentially consuming poison. While the health of the fish is a concern, this possibility has massive repercussions for the whole food chain. Fish that eat that fish than take the mercury and DDT into their own bodies. Humans and land animals that eat those fish, in turn, are also exposed to these toxins.

It might not necessarily be that bleak, though. Some hope that the fish just wind up dispelling the plastic from their bodies (think pooping or regurgitation) would help to minimize the effects, although further research will need to be conducted to confirm if that’s the case.

Notably, the researchers concede that the plastic could be disappearing for multiple reasons, including being weighed down and sinking to the bottom or slowly breaking into undetectable pieces. Still, they assert that it is “indisputable” that at least a large portion of the plastic is being consumed by marine life.

Obviously, scientists must use estimates in this particular study that leave the findings at least somewhat ambiguous. Although we believe that 300,000 tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, we can’t know exactly how much plastic actually makes its way to the ocean because if we could see it occurring, (well, ideally anyway) we’d stop it. Furthermore, despite research ships dragging nets around the world to get a sampling of the problem, they did not cover every square inch of the ocean. Then again, even if the estimates are off, they shouldn’t be that far off. A 99% drop off from the expected amount indicates that something big is at play.

It’s pretty sad that we’re at a point where we’d rather see more aquatic trash heaps like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch than discover that fish are gobbling down plastic, but this is the inevitable result for a species that is so careless with the environment.

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127 comments

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9:31PM PDT on Jul 16, 2014

scary

9:32PM PDT on Jul 11, 2014

I have seen photos/videos of the birds suffereing from our plastic trash. Sea birds eat it. It is horrific. The video was from Midway Island I believe and showed the island covered with dead and dying birds. Baby birds so weak and confused that they can't stand. Decomposed bodies with heaps of plastic where their bodies were. This island is uninhabited and yet is cover with plastic. This is horrific and unforgivable. Sea turtles eat bags because they think they are jelly fish and then die if not fortunate enough to get rescued by a rehab. All animals are affected. In the food chain of life, we are eating plastic.

My question is: Did they just float around punching numbers or did they do anything to clean up some of the plastic that is out there? That is what needs to be done.

9:47AM PDT on Jul 11, 2014

Oh hell... Nice going humans!!!

3:27PM PDT on Jul 9, 2014

Rather unnerving, if you ask me. The fish & other sea life are eating this plastic, then feel full and don't eat the proper nutrition that they need.
We've created a monster!!!
Plastic bags should be banned world wide. We need to get used to using our cloth bags!
No excuses, period.

7:49AM PDT on Jul 9, 2014

Plastic is the new fish?

4:30AM PDT on Jul 8, 2014

I can't imagine that any animal can process plastic no matter how nice that would be. I imagine it will build up in their bodies and eventually kill the fish.

3:23PM PDT on Jul 7, 2014

noted

12:33PM PDT on Jul 7, 2014

I wonder if it would be possible to analyze the stomach contents of some commercially caught ocean fish to better estimate how much plastic the fish are consuming. (not killing additional fish, just examining a sample of fish already being processed for market consumption)

10:57AM PDT on Jul 7, 2014

Might be possible that some of the plastic is being rendered harmless, BUT we are dumping so much junk, the ecosystem can't adjust to all of it.

6:33AM PDT on Jul 7, 2014

very sad :(:(

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