Between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans, according to a research team headed by Jenna Jambeck of the University of Georgia. The same research concludes that his could be multiplied by ten in the next decade if there is no improvement in international waste policies.
The research, carried out in 2010, covered the globe’s 192 coastal nations. Contrary to previous studies on the subject, which concentrated on what is actually in the high seas and therefore not entirely accurate (as a comparison: measuring the water flowing out of the tap instead of what’s already in the tub), the U. of Georgia study looked into the amount of plastic waste that actually goes into the ocean from its sources.
According to the data collected, these countries generate some 275 million tons of the stuff, of which between 4.8 and 12.7 million end up in the oceans. Much of it is in the form of plastic fishing nets and rope, as well as plastic bottles in all their shapes and sizes, plus the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag (the custom in US supermarkets is to give you paper grocery bags at least makes them recyclable – plastic can take several thousand of years to degrade). That’s 1.7 to 4.6% of the total plastic waste generated by the countries.
“Our estimate of 8 million metric tons going into the oceans in 2010 is equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world,” said Jambeck, in a press release. “This annual input increases each year, so our estimate for 2015 is about 9.1 million metric tons.”
According to MindBodyGreen, these scientists identified three categories that can help provide information about plastics polluting the oceans:
- The mass of waste generated per capita annually
- The percentage of waste that is plastic
- The percentage of plastic waste that has the potential to enter the ocean as debris
“This annual input increases each year, so our estimate for 2015 is about 9.1 million metric tons,” said Jambeck at a press conference.
However, the figures, as massive as they are, may well be an underestimate because, again according to MindBodyGreen, it only represents plastics that are buoyant in seawater, which accounts for only about half of plastic production in North America and two-thirds of plastic in the U.S. waste stream.
“In 2025, the annual input would be about twice the 2010 input, or 10 bags full of plastic per foot of coastline,” Jambeck said. “So the cumulative input by 2025 would equal 155 million metric tons.”
“If that sounds catastrophic, well, unfortunately, it is,” says MindBodyGreen. “But hopefully, this estimate helps us understand the gravity of the situation. And, by conducting this study, the authors have developed a model that can help us figure out strategies to reduce plastic waste input into the oceans.”
Horrifying impact on sea life
This documentary, from ABC in Australia, gives a good example of the kind of impact plastic has on the wildlife.
It’s not just the fish, seals, sea lions and turtles that get tangled up in this web of pollution, but birds that feed in the oceans as well. This documentary is well worth watching. (I am searching for one documenting the coastline of Spain, specially that of the Mediterranean, which Jacques Cousteau classified as the dirtiest sea in the world.)
Coming soon: what you can do to help. Watch this space.