Ocean Plastic Estimated at 5.25 Trillion Pieces — But Where’s the Rest?

The deluge of plastic detritus — from the large to the microscopic — swirling about in our oceans weighs in at 269,000 metric tons, according to the most comprehensive research on marine plastic hot off the press yesterday. One of the researchers, Dr. Marcus Erikson, visualizes it like this: “Two litre plastic bottles stacked end-to-end forming a column to the moon and back TWICE.” That’s roughly 6 billion bottles afloat on the high seas.

But as devastating as these numbers are, Erikson says they’re way too conservative. Given that we produce 300 million tons of plastic every year and the National Academy of Sciences estimates 0.1 percent of it ends up in the ocean, he says he knows there’s more. Way more.

So exactly where is the rest?

Especially the most toxic and chemically laden fragments — microplastics — which numbered 100 times less than expected.

There are two mechanisms accelerating the marine plastic phenomenon: gyres, which pulverize plastic, and ocean currents transporting it to the ends of the earth.

Gyres operate at the ocean surface where we can easily see the mess. In the largest and most famous of these watery vortexes — the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — spins more than a third of all marine plastic pollution.

Driven by winds, gyres can suck in 20-pound plastic fishing buoys and shred them into tiny fragments. Ninety percent of the plastic found in gyres is smaller than a grain of rice or sand — the right sizes to be mistaken as food by hungry fish and other filter feeding marine life.

Rainbow Runner with plastic in stomach

Plastic ingested by a Rainbow Runner in Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Photo: Marcus Erikson, 5-Gyres Institute.

This is partly why the amount of plastic is lower than expected — the stuff has already been ingested into the food chain. Plastic is making its way from the digestive tract of minuscule zooplankton, up the food chain, one species at a time.

Additionally, once the shredding job is done, gyres eject plastic fragments. Some fragments get carried off by surface currents, others sink and can accidentally hitch a ride on another current — the great oceanic conveyor belt.

The conveyor belt distributes nutrients and oxygen throughout the world’s oceans by forcing warm and cold bodies of water to mix. This mixing also makes life on earth livable — if you recall in The Day After Tomorrow things got pretty frigid on the eastern seaboard when the north Atlantic part of the current shut down.

But blockbuster-fiction aside, the conveyor belt has become the accidental global distribution system for plastic — taking it not only far, and wide, but also deep.

Microplastics are now embedded in arctic ice cores. Erikson found plastic in 90 percent of the water samples he took from sub polar gyres. There’s plastic in deep-sea sediments, and washing up right now on a beach near you.

If feeding your children fish fingers laced with tiny bits of plastic sounds doesn’t horrifying enough, it’s the nasties that come with marine plastic that have some scientists calling it hazardous waste.

Endocrine disruptors such as phthalates are used as plastic softeners, pesticides like DDT, POPs (persistent organic pollutants), and flame retardants readily adhere to plastic. Meaning tiny plastic fragments are highly toxic — poisonous pills, if you will — swallowed firstly by unwitting fish and then by those at the top of the food chain. Us.

Erikson does think the tide of plastic pollution is turning. As we ban single-use plastic bags — one city, one state at a time — we are entering the Age of Restoration. He thinks if we can turn off the waste tap, and stop abusing our oceans they will eventually dispel all the plastic and heal.

gyre sample

Gyre water sample. Photo: kqedquest. Creative Commons BY-NC (extended).

He suggests looking to the waste-pickers of the world for conservation tips. Whether in Mumbai or Los Angeles, sorting through a landfill or dumpsters, waste-pickers follow the money. They bypass most plastic items only taking what has recycling monetary value — bottles with guaranteed refunds.

If a value is put on all post-consumer plastic, Erikson envisions less plastic poisoning marine food webs and littering our planet.

Captain Charles Moore, who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, goes a step further suggesting the ones making the profits — the plastics industry — should also bear some responsibility for recycling/clean-up costs. Much the same way as big greenhouse gas polluters are starting to do with cap and trade programs.

With more plastic produced in the first decade of this century than all the plastic produced in the previous 50 years — and production set to quadruple by 2050 — we’d better hope plastic debris gets downsized sooner rather than later.

To those who’re thinking couldn’t we just vacuum the plastic back out of the ocean, at 5.25 trillion particles and counting; the job is too big and collateral damage to marine life too probable.

Even Dutch wunderkind Boyen Slat, who crowd-funded $1 million in 32 days for his aeronautically engineered collection device for ocean plastic, now admits there are logistical limitations to his solar-powered brainchild.

Before we got so successful at utilizing fossil fuels — plastic is a petrochemical polymer — the ocean could wash away most of what we threw in it. But not at this rate.

Like other carbon-based products we have to reduce our dependence on plastic.

Fish is the primary source of protein for more than a billion people. Who will want to eat fish when they find out it comes with a built in side-dish of plastic?


This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Copyright The Huffington Post. All rights reserved.



Join the Discussion

  • Sarah Wauters

    I knew there was a reason I quit eating fish! Actually, I stopped
    eating fish when I was pregnant for the mercury reason, and then I kept
    going because I saw how beleaguered the fisheries were and that the
    content of large fish couldn’t be too healthy with all the heavy metals
    in the ocean.

    However, I think I need to become more actively
    engaged. With regard to ocean-bound waste, a packaging-free life is
    possible. But that does mean I will bring a container with me for take
    out meals, buy from the bulk section with my cotton bags in hand, etc. I
    have friends who do this, and it does take some effort, but it’s
    obviously needed.

    Policy suggestions are useful but are they
    salable? Here’s my question. Was life so much worse when we visited
    the “dry goods” store with our own containers? Let’s see companies come
    up with a way to package food, at least, where the advertising and the
    messaging on the package now lives in the grocery store, and you take
    home a much pared down package – that is made of paper instead. Is this
    a vision that can work? Packaging Experts? Grocery store operations
    people? What do you say?

    Next? Water bottles. When I grew up
    in the 1970s, there was no such thing as bottled water in this country
    and if you saw a bottle of water, it was a very fancy item indeed and
    the middle class did not consume it regularly. We had water fountains
    and we drank from the tap. I still do. Now that single use bags are
    history, why not ban single use plastic bottles for soda, water, etc?
    This would also mean that folks becoming unhealthy on sugary drinks
    would be restricted from this unhealthy habit (for them and for the
    oceans) by the greater cost of the glass bottled item. But I leave it
    to the economists to sort out if the carbon footprint of glass bottles
    is too great…

    • Wow, Sarah, nice to e-meet a kindred spirit. I too gave up most fish a few years back as I couldn’t bring myself to contribute to depleting them. I shop at the farmers market (my city is lucky to have an awesome network of those; even one through the winter) for most of my food and most of that is naked veg that goes straight into canvas bags. I’m lucky in a neighbourhood (well I chose it as it’s a like-minded hood) where staples are available in bulk at several stores closeby and I even reuse my plastic baggies as I repack stuff at home in glass jars. None of this is ridiculously complicated, you just have to develop the habits. Same goes for remembering your travel mug or stainless takeoutable dishes, right? And for anyone who thinks this is odd, cafes & restaurants are happy to oblige. But I’ve been practising this lifestyle for years now so I guess maybe I make it sound easy. You are so right about the need for more options; principally, I think, because too many people aren’t ethically unsettled enough by these issue to inconvenience themselves very much so making it convenient would help greatly. And come to think of it, perhaps it’s a good opp for social entrepreneurs to step in and open little local shops such as a soap store in my city (Vancouver, Canada) where you can bring back your bottles and just get refills of premium soaps, household cleaners, personal care products and DIY ingredients. But there’s only one shop, when having one in every ‘hood would make a much bigger dent as it would appeal to those who can’t/wont trek to another part of town. And I realize not everyone is conscious about shopping local and sadly lots and lots of people prefer big supermarkets so that’s a bit trickier as the big corporates have to be convinced… Eco-campaigns by big non profits sometimes move things along there, though the pace can be glacial. For example, a huge grocery chain here recently voluntarily stopped using all synthetic colours and flavours in its popular house brand line of foods.
      Anyway, sorry to ramble. My point is that, as you know, there are existing solutions for the die-hards who have already been informed of things like plastic pollution. How anyone still regularly uses single-use plastic like water bottles is quite frankly beyond me but I find a surprising number of people still aren’t aware enough (to care enough to make any extra effort), so I love that Belinda is spreading the scientific facts that might compel more behaviour change as well as inspiring people to call for policy action.

  • Thanks Belinda for helping spread the word!