Global Plastic Pollution Revealed: 269,000 Tons Floating in the World’s Oceans

plastic pollution photo

Most of us realize abstractly that plastic pollution is a real problem in the world’s oceans. We’ve vaguely heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or maybe at one time been dismayed to see plastic floating along a waterway.

It’s a problem that’s somewhat hidden because plastic is a huge industry that keeps pushing more and more plastic products in our faces. But the fact of the matter is plastic pollution is a real problem–a recent study revealed its full magnitude.

In all, 5 trillion pieces of plastic, collectively weighing 269,000 tons are floating in the world’s oceans, causing pollution beyond our wildest nightmares, according to The Guardian. Just to give you an idea, a blue whale (the most massive species on Earth) weighs 100-150 tons–so that’s 2,150 blue whales! Data collected by scientists from the U.S., France, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand found that most of the waste is in the form of “micro-plastics”, the kind that get ingested and make their way up the food chain and into our bodies. That’s a scary thing when you consider chemicals like phthalates and BPA that have already been found to be dangerous. And then there’s the larger pieces that end up straggling far too many marine creatures and birds.

“We saw turtles that ate plastic bags and fish that ingested fishing lines,” Julia Reisser, a researcher based at the University of Western Australia said to The Guardian. “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 data was collected over a six year period and recently published in the journal PLOS One. Smaller fragments were collected in nets and larger pieces were seen from boats.

“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 visualize 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.”

Plastic often accumulates in “ocean gyres” like the most famous one, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I wrote a while back about one particular island feeling the brunt of the plastic pollution. Midway should be an untouched paradise, but as a result of waste coming from North America and Asia, upwards of 10,000 pounds of plastic washes up on its shores annually. The island is filled with towers of plastic waste and the dead birds that perished after ingesting it. Each ocean has similar ocean gyres which amount to nothing but plastic.

“Lots of things are used once and then not recycled,” Reisser said to The Guardian. “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.”

Need a little more help understanding the scope of this much plastic? Check out this graphic courtesy of Grist that breaks down the tonnage into how many blue whales it equals. The number is staggering. 2,150.


Related on EcoSalon

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Nothing Short of a Plastic Paradise

California Plastic Bag Ban, Fist Statewide Ban in the U.S.

How to Live Without Plastic Bags

Image: prilfish

Graphic: grist