Full scale of plastic in the world's oceans revealed for first time
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 marine environment.
“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 it.
“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 ocean ecosystems.”
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 solution.”
Microplastic deposits found deep in world's oceans and seas
Study of 12 sites concludes that deep sea sediments are acting as a sink for substantial quantities tiny pieces of plastic
9/1/2015 09.57 GMT
Scientists believe they have solved the mystery of where tens of thousands of tonnes of missing tiny pieces of plastic are ending up – and the answer lies in the mud and sand on the ocean floor.
Researchers have previously been puzzled by why they found much less plastic on the ocean surface than they expected, but a study by a British and Spanish team concludes that deep sea sediments are acting as a sink for such “microplastics”.
Analysing samples from 12 sites in the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean taken between 2001 and 2012, they found for the first time that substantial quantities of microplastics – which measure less than 1mm in length – had accumulated in deep sea sediment.
The tiny fibres were found at depths from 300m down at the shallowest in the Mediterranean to over 3,000m deep, at volumes 1,000 times higher than those at the surface of the sea.
Prof Lucy Woodall, of the Natural History Museum in London and the paper’s lead author, said: “This is the tip of the iceberg. Fibres are ubiquitous in our oceans and they do appear to be quite abundant in comparison with similar studies that have looked at similar things. The fundamental message of the paper is really quite simple: they’re there. Now we need to find out what the impacts are on our environment.”
A study earlier this month, the most comprehensive of its kind so far, estimated there are more than 5tn pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans, weighing nearly 269,000 tonnes. But the authors, who collected tens of thousands of pieces of plastic and then extrapolated that to model how many would be found worldwide, cautioned that the amount was just 0.1% of annual global plastic production.
The new work sampling deep sea sediments, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal on Wednesday, found pieces of plastic that were commonly 2–3 mm in length and less than 0.1 mm in diameter.
“The prevalence of plastic microfibres in all sediment cores and on all coral colonies examined suggests this contaminant is ubiquitous in the deep sea. Furthermore, the wide variety of polymer types detected reveals that the accumulation and deposition of microfibres in the deep sea is complex and that they arise from a variety of domestic and industrial sources,” the study said.
Woodall added: “Pretty much everything [is a potential source for what we found]. Just look around in our environment, our computers have plastic, our bags have, our cups have. All those things can potentially end up in the ocean, so to pinpoint any particular source is just not possible.”
The abundance of plastic at such depths has potentially negative ramifications for marine life, though the study says more research is needed. “A range of organisms are known to ingest microplastics, and there is concern this could result in physical and/or toxicological harm,” the authors warn.
Drowning in plastic
We’ve all heard stories of islands of floating rubbish in the middle of the oceans, but it’s the trillions of barely visible microscopic fragments that are set to be the world’s next ecological emergency. Lucy Siegle reports
9/1 2015 08.00 GMT
I just sat next to a coral reef and watched the sharks go by,” says Céline Cousteau. The filmmaker is talking about a recent dive in Australia, when for once she left her camera behind. “There’s a certain grace when a massive tiger shark acknowledges your presence but just swings by. It doesn’t have time for you.” But then Cousteau is more comfortable in the ocean than most of us, as you might expect from the daughter of environmentalist Jean-Michel and granddaughter of Jacques, whose films first brought the deep to the surface.
Increasingly Cousteau finds herself battling to preserve not just the family legacy but the ocean itself. A member of the World Economic Forum Council on Oceans, she has spent the past few days at Davos pushing to move ocean issues up the global agenda. “My grandfather said: ‘People protect what they love.’ And my father followed with: ‘How can you protect what you don’t understand?’ I see my role as explaining to people why the health of oceans matters.”
In particular, it will be difficult to explain to future generations how and why humanity decided to use the planet’s oceans as a dustbin for plastic, a material known for its durability. Perhaps we thought it magically evaporated. Trillions of pieces are now swirling around the planet’s great oceanic gyres. Gyres occur when airflows moving from the tropics to the polar regions create a clockwise rotating air mass, which then drives oceanic surface currents in the same direction. It is here, where winds are light, that the plastic debris of our throwaway lives is dramatically visible.
Scientists and explorers are also drawn to the gyres, especially the so-called Eastern Garbage Patch in the north Pacific, the largest of the five major examples. Indeed, the trend threatens to displace the destruction of the Amazon rainforest as the ecological cause célèbre. Global adventurers (including David de Rothschild on a boat, Plastiki, made of plastic bottles) have headed to the Eastern Garbage Patch to raise public awareness, monitor the flux of plastic and to vlog for National Geographic.
While these swashbucklers have made an important contribution, however, they do not tell the full story. Richard Thompson, professor of marine biology at Plymouth University, wants to solve a huge mystery: rather than being stunned by the amount of plastic swirling around in the ocean, he has always wondered why there isn’t more.
It first occurred to him that something was missing when, as a PhD student, he co-ordinated beach clean-ups for the Marine Conservation Society. “Everyone collected the more exciting pieces, running to get a tyre or fishing net but trampling over thousands of bits of fragmented plastic,” he says. Once he started teaching his own students, he challenged them to find the smallest bits of plastic possible. They came back with sand samples and “from the start we saw pieces that didn’t look natural”. Rather than fancy field trips, he spent (and still spends) a good bit of time out in all weathers in the English Channel, just up from Plymouth’s Tamar estuary, with a trawl net.
Sieving the ocean is a thankless task. There are hundreds of variations of plastic polymers, and the natural world also throws up decoys: two tiny fragments in a test tube look to my eyes like so-called “mermaid’s tears”, small pellets which are a raw material in the manufacture of plastic that have spilled into the environment. More than 250bn are produced each year. “Actually,” says Thompson, “those are squid eyes.” In the ocean they’d naturally biodegrade.
In Lost at Sea: Where is All the Plastic?, a landmark study published in Science in 2004, Thompson and his team were able to demonstrate to the world that plastic litter seen in the gyres was only the start of the problem. The study coined the term microplastics (now commonly used) to describe tiny pieces of plastic under 5mm in diameter. Using the samples he had collected around Plymouth he showed microscopic plastic fragments to be abundant in the water column. He also used a cache of plankton samples dating back to the 1960s, collected on stretches of sea between Aberdeen and the Shetlands and between Sule Skerry and Iceland, very far from the subtropical gyres. Again these revealed microplastics but also proved that they had increased substantially since the 1960s, alongside our production and consumption of plastic. Thompson had his proof that microscopic pieces of plastic are potentially presenting a huge threat to the oceans.
After the 2004 study, he continued his plastic detection, doggedly crunching the numbers. Even taking into account microplastics on the ocean’s surface as well as all the more obvious junk monitored in the gyres, it didn’t add up. Each year globally we manufacture, at the very least, 300m tonnes of plastic, and the “flux” of plastic to the world’s oceans is suggested to be at least 0.1% of all plastic. Thompson added in “legacy plastic”, the results of six decades of producing plastic waste. But still there was a deficit. Where on earth was it?
Every detective needs a breakthrough moment. Thompson and his team had two. The first was in 2014, when they came across samples of sea ice from remote Arctic locations and tested it for microplastics. The results were extraordinary. Thompson found in some cases that the Arctic ice contained concentrations of microplastics greater even than in the Pacific gyre. What became apparent was that as it formed, sea ice concentrated natural particulates from the water column, drawing in a high level of microplastics.
I always imagined that this would be the point when scientists high-five each other and whoop for joy. But the discovery of a proportion of the missing plastics was cold comfort to a conservationist like Thompson. Not only did it illustrate the extensive reach of manmade plastics, but it also raised a second issue: if Arctic ice continues to melt at its current rate, then more than one trillion pieces of microplastic could be released. The toxicological and long-term environmental effects of this are unknown. Besides, Thompson’s figure still came up short even if he factored in the plastic residing in the bellies of seabirds.
The next breakthrough came from 3,000 metres below the ocean surface. Thompson received a call from Dr Lucy Woodall of the Natural History Museum, who had been surveying the deep seabed and found mystery particles. Far from bobbing around on the surface of the five gyres, an abundance of microplastics were likely to have accumulated at the bottom of the sea. Seemingly buoyant particles sank as they weathered, were colonised by organisms or caught up in storms. Another huge sink had been uncovered.
And there we might end, if this was just an eco whodunit. The bad news is that plastic contamination stretches from the seabed to Arctic ice and shorelines as far south as Punta Arenas, Chile. As Thompson puts it: “Everywhere we’ve looked so far for plastic contamination, we’ve found it.” But what is the impact of all this plastic, which can be ingested by almost every species and stored in their tissue? Now that Thompson has begun to work out where the plastic goes, he needs to quantify its impact.
“Plastic itself isn’t the problem,” he says. “It’s the way we use it that turns this wondrous material into a major waste problem.” The question remains: can we change our habits in time? It will take more than the efforts of the Plymouth University marine science department and a few dedicated environmentalists to make a difference.
Céline Cousteau, meanwhile, remains contemplative about the aquatic universe of which her family has done so much to raise awareness. If he were alive today, it’s hard not to think that her grandfather Jacques would be devoting his energies to raising awareness of the plastic pandemic. “It’s a privilege to have access to an underwater world,” Céline says. “Down there it’s sort of quiet, but loud at the same time.”
‘Fifty miles out we could smell the pollution’: sailing amid the ocean litter
Justin Chisholm asks the sailors racing around the world about the state of the seas
Drowning in plastic: the world’s next ecological emergency
Sept 1 2015 08.00 GMT
For the majority of landlubbers, the fact that the world’s oceans are clogging up with the detritus of a rampant consumer society can easily be ignored. For most, the watery expanses beyond our coastlines might just as well be another planet.
Not so for the crews of the fleet of high-speed ocean racing yachts currently competing in the Volvo Ocean Race around the world, which spend up to three weeks at a time at sea racing day and night. For them the effects of ocean littering are all too obvious.
British double Olympic silver medallist Ian Walker skippers the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team and is competing in his third race around the world. In more than 100,000 miles of ocean racing, Walker says he hasn’t hit anything major – yet. It may be just a matter of time – on a high-speed training run across the Atlantic this summer Walker and his crew narrowly missed hitting a household fridge-freezer bobbing in the middle of the ocean.
“We passed within a boatlength of it,” Walker remembers. “Fortunately we saw it. It could easily have put a hole in our boat.”
As incongruous as having to dodge a fridge-freezer mid-ocean might seem, Walker says that encounters with manmade waste afloat on the ocean happen all too often.
“The most common things we see are plastic bottles and fishing debris like buoys and rope, but I remember sailing near the Philippines in the South China Sea and we had to weave our way through a whole lot of cut logs – just like someone had emptied a trailer-load in the sea.”
Like all good mariners, the sailors keep a watch for objects floating in their path during the day. “Wherever we are, we see plenty of plastic bottles bobbing by – with and without tops,” says New Zealander Daryl Wislang. “Generally they are completely encrusted with barnacles, which gives you some idea of how long they have already been around.”
Once darkness falls, all the sailors can do is hope they don’t run into anything as they charge along at more than 30 knots (35mph). At those speeds a collision with a log or a fridge-freezer would almost certainly cause catastrophic damage to the hull, keel and rudders – at best putting the crew out of the race and at worst endangering their lives.
“It’s my biggest fear,” Walker confesses. “There’s nothing you can do except keep your eyes open during the day and keep the watertight doors closed in the bow at night in case the worst happens.”
The two most debris-ridden sea areas Walker has raced through are the coastline of Vietnam and the Malacca Straits between Indonesia and Malaysia. “In addition to fishing nets and domestic waste, you have to deal with plenty of natural debris, too – floating islands of trees and reeds are a common sight.”
Despite stories of seafarers encountering remote mid-ocean “islands of trash”, Walker says he has never seen anything like that and describes the open oceans he has sailed as “very, very clean. But things deteriorate dramatically as you approach land,” he adds. “It is only by sailing in the clean ocean that you realise how dirty the water is near land.”
Walker says the most dramatic example of coastal pollution he has witnessed was during the 2008-09 Volvo Ocean Race on the leg from Qingdao, China, to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil (the controversial choice as the venue for the Rio 2016 Olympic sailing regatta). “We were about 50 miles out when the water suddenly changed colour from blue to brown. Straightaway you could smell the pollution. I would never swim in the sea there.”
Although some ocean debris falls or gets thrown from cargo ships or is left behind by fishing vessels, by far the greatest proportion originates on land and finds its way out to sea by a deliberate act. “It is never good to see the negative effect that we humans have on our planet. I am always shocked when I walk on the beach at home in the UK at how much rubbish there is, particularly after a big storm,” he says. “In all cases I think the polluter must be forced to pay, whether it is sewage, shipping containers or other rubbish. Authorities need to stop treating the oceans as a rubbish dump and start treasuring them for what they are – one of mankind’s finest natural assets.”