Hopefully, we can all agree that the ocean is no place for trash. Unfortunately, a massive new study by researchers from Australia and the U.S. has determined that we are throwing far more plastic waste into the oceans than previously thought. In 2010 alone, between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic made its way into the Earth’s waters, and if we look at the modest middle figure—8 million tonnes—that amounts to “five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world.”
The study, published in the journal Science, looked at the amount of waste produced by 192 countries with coastlines, and then “worked through the proportion of that waste likely to be plastic, and how much of the plastic could end up in the ocean because of each nation’s waste management practices,” according to the New York Times.
From this, the researchers were able to estimate how much plastic debris made its way into the world’s oceans in 2010. Not only that, but they used population growth estimates to look at the rate at which this debris would increase over coming years. According to the report’s lead author Jenna Jambeck, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia we could, as a planet, be disposing of 10 plastic bags of plastic per foot of coastline as soon as 20205.
These figures are significantly higher than previous studies have suggested. As New Scientist reports, “the combined results from 24 oceanic expeditions published late last year concluded there may be perhaps 244,000 tonnes of floating plastic out there,” which sits in pretty steep contrast to other, conservative estimates that “something like 9 million tonnes of plastic have entered the oceans since the 1970s.”
These conservative figures, as disparate as they may be, are still a far cry from 13 million tonnes in just one year. Part of the reason for this may be that studies of ocean plastic that are undertaken once the water is in the ocean may not fully account for the massive amount of tiny debris that are floating out there.
Marcus Eriksen of the Five Gyres Institute explained to NS, “of the 5.25 trillion particles of plastic we reported recently in PLoS One, 92 per cent are less than the size of a grain of rice.” And so while there has been talk of collecting plastic debris from the oceans, it is likely that changes must be made here on land to prevent the massive problem of ocean plastics from not only continuing, but increasing in the coming years.
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