There Are Trillions of Pieces of Plastic Trash Floating in the World’s Oceans

It’s looking like the problem with plastic pollution in the world’s oceans is worse than suspected according to a new study from the 5 Gyres Institute that estimates the number of pieces floating around on the surface is in the trillions.

The study, published this week in the journal PLOS One, is the first worldwide estimate of the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans, which put the numbers at a staggering 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 269,000 tons.

To put that into perspective, Marcus Eriksen, PhD, Director of Research for the 5 Gyres Institute, compared it to stacking 2-liter water bottles from here to the moon and back, twice, or laying straws along the equator, end to end, 425 times.

The conclusion comes after scientists from six countries contributed data from 24 expeditions that were collected over a six-year period from 2007-2013 across all five sub-tropical gyres, coastal Australia, the Bay of Bengal and the Mediterranean Sea. They used the data on microplastics collected using nets and large plastic debris from visual surveys, which were then used to make an ocean model of the amount of plastic and its distribution.

They found larger pieces of plastic around coastlines, but also made an unexpected discovery finding the smallest microplastics were present even in remote regions.

Their work has shed light not only on how bad the problem is, but on how plastic is moving through the ecosystem. While it’s collecting in gyres, Eriksen says those gyres act like “shredders” that break it down before winds and currents carry it back out and push it around the world.

“Our findings show that the garbage patches in the middle of the five subtropical gyres are not the final resting places for the world’s floating plastic trash. The endgame for micro-plastic is interactions with entire ocean ecosystems,” said Eriksen.

More troubling is that this that the study’s authors are stressing that their conclusion is a “highly conservative estimate” because they only looked on the surface, and didn’t count what had made its way to the sea floor, hovering somewhere in the middle, beaches or into marine animals.

For marine life, plastic is a big problem. Not only can consuming it be deadly by itself, but plastic sucks up toxins that are absorbed by animals and spread through the food chain.

Can we clean it up? While some efforts are focused on removing this type of trash from our environment NOAA just cleaned up 57 tons of it in Hawaii through its Marine Debris Program if we keep producing and tossing plastic products at the rate we’re going, the problem will never be solved.

While the message is stressed to reduce, reuse and recycle it’s clearly time to rethink the necessity of disposable products and become more mindful of not using things that have no value after a one time use. According to Eriksen, to help address this problem, we need better public awareness and litter laws, better waste management practices, and we need to push for corporate responsibility.

In a session addressing this study on Reddit, Eriksen also stresses the need for legislation to curb production and mandate practices that can ensure products are either 100 percent recovered or are 100 percent environmentally harmless.

We can also do our part by avoiding plastic — from plastic bags and bottles to personal care products that use microplastics (look for polyethylene and polypropylene on labels) — as much as possible, and supporting legislation that will keep microplastics out of our environment. This summer Illinois became the first state to officially ban plastic microbeads, while other states, including California, are working on similar legislation.

For more info on how to support efforts to rid our environment of microplastics, visit the 5 Gyres Institute.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

79 comments

Elizabeth Z.
Elizabeth Z4 years ago

Living in the ocean is just as depressing as living on land...humans and their consumption is destroying the planet quick.

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Debbie Miller
Debbie Miller4 years ago

Why can't we just keep our trash to ourselves!! Shameful.

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Roberto Meritoni
Roberto Meritoni4 years ago

Thanks for sharing

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Elizabeth F.
Elizabeth F4 years ago

Come on humans--let's get with the programme!!!

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Angela K.
Angela K4 years ago

Thanks for sharing

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Kamia T.
Kamia T4 years ago

I realized I'm wondering why all those gill nets that catch up all the fish and mammals they don't need couldn't be used to pick up all the extra plastic. Maybe we need to start a fund rewarding fishermen for bringing back so many tons of plastic per trip?

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Alexandra G.
Alexandra G4 years ago

horrible !

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Ruhee B.
Ruhee B4 years ago

We are drowning in plastic ...!

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Jeannet Adores Animals

Once trash, always trash

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