Over five trillion pieces of plastic are floating in our oceans says most comprehensive study to date on plastic pollution around the world
More than five trillion pieces of plastic, collectively weighing
nearly 269,000 tonnes, are floating in the world’s oceans, causing
damage throughout the food chain, new research has found.
Data collected by scientists from the US, France, Chile, Australia
and New Zealand suggests a minimum of 5.25tn plastic particles in the
oceans, most of them “micro plastics” measuring less than 5mm.
The volume of plastic pieces, largely deriving from products such as
food and drink packaging and clothing, was calculated from data taken
from 24 expeditions over a six-year period to 2013. The research, published in the journal PLOS One, is the first study to look at plastics of all sizes in the world’s oceans.
Large pieces of plastic can strangle animals such as seals, while
smaller pieces are ingested by fish and then fed up the food chain, all
the way to humans.
This is problematic due to the chemicals contained within plastics,
as well as the pollutants that plastic attract once they are in the
“We saw turtles that ate plastic bags and fish that ingested fishing
lines,” said Julia Reisser, a researcher based at the University of
Western Australia. “But there are also chemical impacts. When plastic
gets into the water it acts like a magnet for oily pollutants.
“Bigger fish eat the little fish and then they end up on our plates.
It’s hard to tell how much pollution is being ingested but certainly
plastics are providing some of it.”
The researchers collected small plastic fragments in nets, while
larger pieces were observed from boats. The northern and southern
sections of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans were surveyed, as well as
the Indian ocean, the coast of Australia and the Bay of Bengal.
The vast amount of plastic, weighing 268,940 tonnes, includes everything from plastic bags to fishing gear debris.
While spread out around the globe, much of this rubbish accumulates
in five large ocean gyres, which are circular currents that churn up
plastics in a set area. Each of the major oceans have plastic-filled
gyres, including the well-known ‘great Pacific garbage patch’ that
covers an area roughly equivalent to Texas.
Reisser said traversing the large rubbish-strewn gyres in a boat was like sailing through “plastic soup.”
“You put a net through it for half an hour and there’s more plastic
than marine life there,” she said. “It’s hard to visualise the sheer
amount, but the weight of it is more than the entire biomass of humans.
It’s quite an alarming problem that’s likely to get worse.”
The research found that the gyres themselves are likely to contribute
to the problem, acting as “shredders” to the plastic before dispersing
“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,” said Marcus Eriksen, another of the report’s
co-authors. “The endgame for micro-plastic is interactions with entire
The research, the first of its kind to pull together data on floating
plastic from around the world, will be used to chart future trends in
the amount of debris in the oceans.
But researchers predict the volume will increase due to rising production of throwaway plastic, with only 5% of the world’s plastic currently recycled.
“Lots of things are used once and then not recycled,” Reisser said.
“We need to improve our use of plastic and also monitor plastics in the
oceans so we get a better understanding of the issue.
“I’m optimistic but we need to get policy makers to understand the
problem. Some are doing that – Germany has changed the policy so that
manufacturers are responsible for the waste they produce. If we put more
responsibility on to the producer then that would be part of the