Plastic Pollution

171 trillion plastic pieces estimated to swim in oceans

New research estimates that around 171 trillion plastic pieces currently swim in the oceans. It further warns that cleanup operations might be futile if plastic pollution further increases.

Written by Oceanographic Staff

The latest research, conducted by the 5 Gyres Institute and published in the journal Plos One, took a closer look at plastic pollution trends between 1979 and 2019. It found that in 2005, around16 trillion plastic particles floated in the oceans. This has now increased to 171 trillion pieces. The authors blamed the plastic industry for the rapid increase, while urging that “cleanup is futile” if plastic pollution continues at the current rate. 

The solution to reducing the amount of plastic particles in the ocean lies in reducing the amount produced and used, according to the study authors, rather than in cleanup and recycling efforts.

Dr Marcus Eriksen, the co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, said: “The exponential increase in microplastics across the world’s oceans is a stark warning that we must act now at a global scale, stop focusing on cleanup and recycling, and usher in an age of corporate responsibility for the entire life of the things they make.”

“Cleanup is futile if we continue to produce plastic at the current rate, and we have heard about recycling for too long while the plastic industry simultaneously rejects any commitments to buy recycled material or design for recyclability. It’s time to address the plastic problem at the source,” he added.

As part of the research, the scientists behind the study took a closer look at 11,777 floating ocean plastics samples to create a global time line to estimate the average plastic counts in the surface layer of the ocean. Thereby, they were also able to evaluate the effectiveness of policies that were implemented around the globe to reduce plastic pollution in the oceans.

The team found that there has been a rapid increase in plastic pollution in oceans and on beaches from 2005. It believes that this is due to increased plastic production and changed waste management around the globe. The researchers warn that the amount of plastics could triple by 2040 and urge policymakers to take immediate action to reduce plastic production.

The highest amount of ocean plastics is currently found in the Mediterranean Sea, while the Great Pacific Garbage Patch also was mentioned in the study.

As UN members will meet in spring of 2023 to decide on further plastic pollution policies, governments are urged to act now and to implement less fregmented policies that reduce pollution and include measurable targets. The authors also say that this should include global corporate responsibility, as well as address the full life cycle of plastic.

“We know the ocean is a vital ecosystem and we have solutions to prevent plastic pollution. But plastic pollution continues to grow and has a toxic effect on marine life. There must be legislation to limit the production and sale of single-use plastics or marine life will be further degraded. Humans need healthy oceans for a livable planet,” commented Dr Edward J Carpenter, of the Estuary and Ocean Science Center at San Francisco State University.


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Written by Oceanographic Staff

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