Study: 100 times less plastic than expected polluting ocean surface

By Steve Toloken
Staff Reporter / Asia Bureau Chief

Published: July 23, 2014 3:46 pm ET
Updated: July 23, 2014 3:49 pm ET

Related to this story

Topics Sustainability, Public Policy

There’s as much as 100 times less plastic floating on surface of the world’s oceans than would be expected given the mushrooming use of the material in recent decades, a new study has found.

But what’s happened to the missing material is not at all clear — it could be ingested by sea creatures, quickly disintegrated into microscopic particles, washed ashore or attach to other objects and sink, according to researchers at the University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute.

The July 1 study, by scientists at UWA and universities in Saudi Arabia and Spain, used data collected on the Spanish government’s Malaspina 2010 expedition and found that plastic debris was widespread, contaminating 88 percent of water samples.

Malaspina, which involved 250 researchers and two research ships looking at the impact of climate change on the ocean, collected more than 3,000 water samples at 141 points around the world between December 2010 and July 2011.

“A conservative first-order estimate of the floating plastic released into the open ocean from the 1970s (106 tons) is 100-fold larger than our estimate of the current load of plastic stored in the ocean,” the UWA report said. “Our study reports an important gap in the size distribution of floating plastic debris as well as a global surface load of plastic well below that expected from production and input rates.”

UWA said in a news release that the biggest gap was in particles smaller than 1 millimeter in diameter, and said that an “unknown mechanism” is removing smaller particles at a faster rate than larger particles.

The study estimated there are between 7,000 and 35,000 tons of plastic floating on the ocean surface now.

While it admits that measuring plastic in the ocean is a complex task, the study said that the amount of plastic on the surface has not kept pace with the rapid increase in plastic production in recent decades.

In the 1970s, for example, it said the U.S. National Academy of Sciences estimated that 45,000 tons of plastics washed into the oceans each year, and it noted that since then, global plastic production has increased five-fold to 265 million tons a year.

“Historical time series of surface plastic concentration in fixed ocean regions show no significant increasing trend since the 1980s, despite an increase in production and disposal,” the study said.

The researchers did not offer any firm suggestions on what would happen to the missing plastic, but said that it was unlikely that more of it would be washing ashore. They said there could be mechanisms to accelerate the breakdown into smaller particles, it could be devoured by marine animals or attach to objects like barnacles, a process called biofouling.

It said that five ocean gyres had the bulk of the plastic. The North Pacific gyre had the most, about 33 percent of the total, because of its size and its proximity to the sea coasts of East Asia, which includes one-third of the world’s coastal populations.

“Because plastic inputs into the ocean will probably continue, and even increase, resolving the ultimate pathways and fate of these debris is a matter of urgency,” the study said.


Comments

Study: 100 times less plastic than expected polluting ocean surface

By Steve Toloken
Staff Reporter / Asia Bureau Chief

Published: July 23, 2014 3:46 pm ET
Updated: July 23, 2014 3:49 pm ET

Post Your Comments


Back to story


More stories

Image

Dunkin' Donuts looking at PP to replace foam cups

September 19, 2014 3:22 pm ET

Dunkin' Donuts is testing a new polypropylene coffee cup that the company believes could help boost recycling.    More

Image

Study: 75 percent of Australia's ocean debris is plastic

September 18, 2014 7:48 pm ET

About 75 percent of the trash found in the waters off Australia's beaches is plastic, with most of that coming from local sources rather than sea-...    More

Image

P&G removing PE microbeads from its Crest brand toothpaste

September 18, 2014 1:57 pm ET

After months of prodding, Procter & Gamble Co., the makers of Crest brand toothpastes, say polyethlene microbeads will be completely removed from its ...    More

Image

PET to PET boosts recycling capacity

September 18, 2014 11:14 am ET

PET to PET Recycling Austria GmbH, a bottle-to-bottle PET recycling operation backed by Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling and several beverage...    More

Image

Minnesota receives grant to help develop new bioplastics

September 17, 2014 4:08 pm ET

The University of Minnesota has received a $20 million grant to fund the development of new types of bioplastics.    More

Market Reports

Plastics Caps & Closures Market Report

The annual recap of top trends and future outlook for the plastics caps & closures market features interviews with industry thought leaders and Bill Wood’s economic forecast of trends in growing end markets. You will also gain insight on trends in caps design, materials, machinery, molds & tooling and reviews of mergers & acquisitions.

Learn more

Shale Gas Market - Analysis of North American Region

This report highlights the impact of shale-based natural gas on the North American plastics market and features an in-depth analysis of production trends in the United States during 2013 and a forecast for 2014 and beyond.

Learn more

Thermoformed Packaging 2014 Market Review & Outlook – North America

This in-depth report analyzes economic and market trends, legislative/regulatory activity impacting supply and demand, business opportunities and threats, materials pricing, manufacturing technology, as well as growth strategies being implemented by thermoformed packaging companies.

Learn more

Upcoming Plastics News Events

January 14, 2015 - January 14, 2015Plastics in Automotive

February 4, 2015 - February 6, 2015Plastics News Executive Forum 2015

More Events