Plastic Pollution Now Blankets the Seas
Almost all of the world’s ocean surfaces are littered with plastic, mainly household items like bags, food and beverage containers, kitchen utensils and toys, a new study finds.
Researchers from Spain’s University of Cádiz found that the five largest accumulations of plastic waste in the open ocean are in the five major gyres, or twists in ocean circulation. But the researchers say they found far less of the manmade litter floating on the ocean’s surface than expected.
“Ocean currents carry plastic objects which split into smaller and smaller fragments due to solar radiation,” said researcher Andrés Cózar. “Those little pieces of plastic, known as microplastics, can last hundreds of years and were detected in 88 percent of the ocean surface sampled during the Malaspina Expedition 2010.”
He warns that the microplastics “have an influence on the behaviour and food chain of marine organisms.”
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimates that the oceans contain between 7,000 and 35,000 tons of floating plastic, but scientists had expected to find evidence of 100 times that amount.
Cózar says that the missing plastic may have accumulated in the deep ocean or become attached to marine plants and animals in a process dubbed “biofouling,” which makes the plastic so heavy it can no longer float.
“We are putting, certainly by any estimate, a large amount of a synthetic material into a natural environment,” said oceanographer Kara Lavender Law, who studies plastic pollution at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She told The Associated Press that we’re “fundamentally changing the composition of the ocean.”
Plastic waste in oceans is causing $13 billion of damage each year, according to a United Nations Environment Program report. Some say that figure is much higher.