A new study estimates that 4 million to 12 million metric tons of plastics are washed into the world's oceans annually — or between 1.5 and 4.5 percent of the world's total plastic production.
I understand that it's easy to be skeptical when numbers like this are bandied about. And that's a pretty huge range. But there's no reason to believe that plastics marine debris is not a serious problem. All of the science indicates that it is, and now there are numbers that help to put the issue into perspective.
There's been hyperbole about plastics marine debris, with talk about garbage islands and statistics claiming that there's six times more plastic than plankton in the ocean.
But there's a lot of serious research about plastic marine debris. And scientists who are alarmed about the problem have been doing their best to get the public — and industry — to pay attention.
And now we have some more solid numbers about the scope of the issue.
The numbers come from a study on marine debris from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which was published Feb. 12 in Science magazine.
Kara Lavender Law, a research professor at the Massachusetts-based Sea Education Association, said that this is the first time ever that anyone is estimating the amount of plastic that enters the oceans in a given year. “Nobody has had a good sense of the size of that problem until now,” she said.
According to the authors, this is the first estimate of plastic marine debris since 1975, when the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 0.1 percent of global plastic production swept out to sea annually.
Researchers looked at how much plastics waste every coastal country in the world produces, and they estimated that between 15 to 40 percent of that total ends up in the ocean.
One of their findings actually seems to hint at a solution to the problem.
According to the study, much of the marine debris is being generated by coastal countries that have no formal waste management systems. China, for example, generates the most plastic marine debris, estimated at as much as 3.5 million tons annually. The United States was No. 20, at up to 110,000 metric tons per year.
So while this isn't a problem that's going to go away, it's clear that we can do a much better job at recycling, recovery and solid waste management. The plastics industry, and its customers, need to make sure that they're supporting efforts to emulate best practices and deal with this issue.
If they don't, the problem will get a lot worse. The report authors predict the annual amount of plastics marine debris will more than double in the next 10 years. If that happens, there is going to a lot more pressure to ban or tax single-use plastics products around the world.
The global plastics trade associations have made marine debris a priority in the past decade. In the United States, the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and the American Chemistry Council each have focused on recycling and on preventing plastic trash from reaching the ocean in the first place.
They're pushing for expanded access to recycling, and on educating the public to help prevent litter. Those are worthwhile efforts, but the statistics are crying out for more action.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.”