HomeScience and NatureOcean Plastic Sees Staggering Increase Since 2005

Ocean Plastic Sees Staggering Increase Since 2005

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The rate of plastic entering the oceans could accelerate 2.6 times by 2040 if left unchecked, say researchers.

Published March 8, 2023 02:10PM EST

The first study describing the discovery of marine plastic debris was published in the journal Science in 1972; the researchers reported that “plastic particles, in concentrations averaging 3500 pieces and 290 grams per square kilometer, are widespread in the western Sargasso Sea.”

After 50 years, what have we done about it? There has been no shortage of press about plastic pollution in the ocean. Photographs of seabirds and marine life stuffed with and/or entangled in plastic have especially brought the crisis to the public eye. But the impact goes far beyond whales and albatrosses. According to the United Nations, marine debris is “negatively affecting more than 800 animal species and causing serious losses to many countries’ economies.”

Tsvi Braverman / EyeEm / Getty Images

With all of the attention this disaster-in-the-making has received, one would think that efforts to quell the crisis would be making an impact. Companies have been clamoring about reduced plastic in packaging, while others boast of using ocean plastic in their goods—to name just a few of the ways that corporations assert that they are helping the problem.

Yet a new study reveals a “rapid and unprecedented” increase in ocean plastics since 2005.

For the study, Marcus Eriksen from The 5 Gyres Institute and colleagues analyzed a global dataset of ocean-surface-level plastic pollution recorded between 1979 and 2019 from 11,777 stations across six marine regions (North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, Indian, and Mediterranean). 

The researchers took into consideration a number of factors, accounting for wind, site selection, and biases due to under-sampling. All told, the authors found a staggering rise in the abundance and distribution of surface plastics in the world’s oceans, with a significant and rapid increase since 2005.

They estimate that over 170 million—up to 358 trillion—plastic particles, weighing up to 4.9 million tons, were afloat in 2019.

Since numbers that vast are hard for the human brain to comprehend, consider this: A trillion seconds is 32,000 years. If each of those 358 trillion plastic particles represented a second, they would equal 11,456,000 years.

Single-use plastic bottles seen floating in polluted water near Cardiff Bay in Cardiff, United Kingdom.
Matthew Horwood / Getty Images

While the authors acknowledge that the results are biased towards trends in the North Pacific and North Atlantic because that is where much of the data was collected, they still have a good idea about what’s behind the unprecedented rise, noting that “the rapid increase from 2005 reflects the global growth of plastic production, or changes in waste generation and management.”

Research like this that quantifies the problem is essential since it can serve as a critical baseline to help address marine plastic pollution. There have been studies before, but they have focused primarily on northern-hemisphere oceans near the world’s most industrialized nations, while other studies have found increases in ocean plastic over shorter timespans, the authors explain.

Not surprisingly, the authors are urgently calling for widespread policy changes—without which they predict the rate that plastics enter our waters will increase approximately 2.6 times by 2040. They recommend legally binding international policy intervention to “minimize the ecological, social, and economic harm of aquatic plastic pollution.”

“We’ve found an alarming trend of exponential growth of microplastics in the global ocean since the millennium, reaching over 170 trillion plastic particles,” says Eriksen. “This is a stark warning that we must act now at a global scale. We need a strong, legally binding UN Global Treaty on plastic pollution that stops the problem at the source.”

The study, “A growing plastic smog, now estimated to be over 170 trillion plastic particles afloat in the world’s oceans—Urgent solutions required,” was published in PLOS ONE.

Source : TreeHugger

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