Just How Much Plastic Trash is in our Oceans?

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Just How Much Plastic Trash is in our Oceans?

Scientists are trying to find out just how much damage this toxic plastic waste is doing as it degrades in the oceans / Photo by epSos.de via Wikimedia Commons


Plastic is one of the most durable objects in the world, and many of our most basic items and needs are made of plastic or come packed in it. For this reason, plastic is often our number one source of garbage.

Trash and garbage have become a large problem in modern society. While we don’t think much about where these go after we’ve thrown them into our bins and bags, the excess has made it to the places that severely affect both wildlife and the ecology of the Earth—our oceans.


Lots and Lots of Trash

There is a lot of trash in our seas, and this is no understatement. Several decades of trash accumulation in our oceans have led to the great heaps floating around in them. As of 2015, there were 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic trash material in the world’s oceans. This amounts to about 269 thousand tons of the stuff floating on the surface, while four billion microfibers of plastic occupy per square kilometer of water.

However, this is just what scientists have discovered. There is still the as of yet unexamined water in the Southern Hemisphere, especially in remote areas, as there have been few chances to collect samples from the region.

Many statistics can tell us why plastics so permeate our oceans. About 33% of it is only used once, and then discarded, and about 85% of all the plastic in the world is not recycled at all. Many plastic products, according to Whoi.edu, are often flushed down the toilet or carried into drains and sewers on rainy days. Back in the 1970s in fact, many boats directly dumped waste into the ocean, with 85% of the garbage in the ocean coming from the wanton dumping from merchant ships of their trash cargo.


Data Gathering

In order to remedy this problem, it doesn’t suffice to know where the trash is and how much there is of it. Scientists are trying to find out just how much damage this toxic plastic waste is doing as it degrades in the oceans, and how much of this toxic material is created, according to National Geographic.

Though it is easy to see the damage that marine life suffers from the actual plastics themselves, it is unclear what happens when they continuously ingest the microplastics that dirty the waters. It becomes incredibly challenging to monitor all the plastic waste as there are multiple countries and regions around the world that produce such trash. The sizes range from large bags to plastic particles smaller than a strand of hair. It is also important to note that all the trash is still unaccounted for. Estimates show that there should be more to be found, but they are unable to locate just where they are right now.


Plastic Trash Surveys

Researchers use three methods to track and count the amount of plastic trash in the seas. The first is through beach surveys. Marcus Eriksen, the co-founder of an ocean advocacy group called 5 Gyres Institute, stated that it took four years and 24 surveys to find out that roughly 5.35 trillion pieces of trash littered the surface of waters.

During these expedition surveys, all sorts of plastic materials were collected, ranging from fish netting to small candy wrappers. Of course, this type of work is grueling and the counting itself is meticulous, which makes it a difficult undertaking.

Despite these hurdles, Eriksen’s efforts helped map out a plastic’s life cycle in the ocean. They found out that these collected in one of the five gyres of the ocean. Gyres are systems with large interconnecting spiral currents. They found that after the plastic degraded, the small parts were carried off to more remote areas where it was more difficult to survey.

About 33% of plastic is only used once, and then discarded, and about 85% of all the plastic in the world is not recycled at all / Photo by MonicaVolpin via Pixabay


Estimations and Models

The second method for counting the amount of plastic trash is by using computer models from those collected at sea. With the help of Eriksen’s work, there was a greater precision in the estimates. Andres Cozar Cabañas, a Spanish researcher from the University of Cadiz, was the first to create a map of the world’s floating debris. His estimates matched the ones from the surveys, which suggest that the actual number of floating plastic may be around those numbers.

The third method was through estimates made from trash entering the oceans. Some factors considered when making estimates are the amount of plastic that is made commercially in a year. Engineers will automatically assume that about 105 of the value lands in the oceans. Though these methods may never account for all of the trash, they are estimates that can provide great insights into the questions that need to be answered.

One of the best solutions for reducing the amount of ocean plastic would be to deal with the waste before it reaches the waters, but even up to this day it can be quite difficult to enforce laws and regulations that will help protect our oceans.



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