About 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are in the world’s oceans, according to a paper from the 5 Gyres Institute published in the journal PLOS One on Wednesday.
The number 5 trillion is 700 times the number of people estimated to live on the planet.
The plastic garbage is estimated to weigh just under 270,000 tons. The scientists also found that the amount of plastic in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres was similar, which was surprising considering the northern produces substantially higher amounts of the substance.
Researchers spent six years surveying 1,571 locations across the world’s oceans to determine how much plastic was in them. They either observed from the boats or they collected the plastic with mesh nets and then used computer models to estimate the total distribution.
The scientists discovered how plastic breaks down into smaller pieces as it moves through the ocean. The smaller pieces were more prevalent while the large pieces of plastic were the most significant. Because so much plastic is found in the Southern Hemisphere, winds and ocean currents transport trash all over the world.
Research director Marcus Eriksen told The Washington Post, “What we are witnessing in the global ocean is a growing threat of toxin-laden microplastics cycling through the entire marine ecosystem.”
Microplastics are less than 5 mm in length and virtually invisible in water. Because they’re so small, they can easily be swept along ocean currents. Additionally, the durability of the substance creates a long-term threat for plastic in the ocean.
Besides the risk of marine life becoming entangled in plastic, organisms also ingest these tiny particles. The ingestion can prove to be fatal, and if it’s not then humans face the potential consequences of eating fish that have consumed plastic.
That threat won’t subside with our current plastic production, which has quadrupled since the 1980s.
The researchers hypothesized that plastic may be washing up on beaches or sinking to the ocean floor faster than anticipated.
The largest concentrations of trash in the ocean gets swept up by the five major gyres that spiral in circles. These gyres can produce islands of trash as big and horrifying as the Great Pacific garbage patch, which is estimated to be the size of Texas.
The authors note that their estimate for plastic in the ocean is “highly conservative.” They stated there is also a “potentially massive amount of plastic present on shorelines, on the seabed, suspended in the water column, and within organisms.”[Photo Credit: killerturnip]