Ocean plastic is likely disappearing into the food chain, new study indicates

14.02.2015 15:03

When I tell people that we have a problem
with too much plastic in our oceans, many
invariably say how shocked they were
when they heard about vast swirling
islands of trash that accumulate in the
oceans’ gyres.
I wish this was the full extent of the
problem. It is not.
The drifting garbage patches we hear
about in the news – such as the “Great
Pacific Garbage Patch” - are the tiny tip of
a man-made iceberg, accounting for
probably just 5% of all the plastic waste
that has been dumped, blown or washed
into the sea.
New research published today in the
journal Science offers the first real estimate
at the quantity of plastic waste entering
the ocean. And it doesn’t look good. The
findings show that between 5 to 12m
tonnes of plastics enter our ocean every
year. This is on top of the 100 to 150m
tonnes likely already in the ocean.
It’s difficult to appreciate the size of this
deluge, so let me put it like this: left
unabated, in the next decade our ocean
will hold about one kilogram of plastic for
every three kilograms of fish. Those of us
who are divers, surfers, ocean swimmers
and boaters all know this sinking feeling
when we encounter yet another trashed
beach, reef, or bay.
left unabated, in the next decade our ocean
will hold about one kilogram of plastic for
every three kilograms of fish
But it’s not just about the aesthetics.
What’s truly worrying me is the missing
plastic. We don’t know where all this
plastic goes. We know that most of it never
deteriorates. Instead it “weathers”,
breaking down into ever smaller parts,
most invisible to the eye. The often-
publicized plastic gyres hold less than 5%
than the estimated total. Some is trapped
in Arctic ice; more sinks to the sea floor;
and a good bit rests on beaches and
shorelines. But where is the rest?
We know that plastic in the ocean is eaten
by animals; we find it in every species of
fish we examine, and it has caused the
death of countless seabirds, turtles, and
ocean mammals.
We are afraid that a good bit of the missing
plastic is actually inside the animals. We
don’t yet know what this means for
humans, but for me personally, this is very
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But here’s
where I have hope: we can solve this
problem. To tackle the curious case of the
missing plastic, we need to start on land.
The new Science study identifies where the
plastic is coming from: it originates mainly
in developing countries, with rapidly
growing populations and emerging middle
classes, which are consuming more and
more plastic.
In most places, the speed of economic
growth overwhelms the capacity of these
countries to manage their waste – and
that’s why a lot of plastic trash ends up in
rivers, large and small, and eventually the
ocean. This isn’t just an environmental
problem – lack of waste collection and
management impacts public health, food
safety and water quality.
Some people have asked if we should just
ban plastic altogether. Yes, we must find
design solutions that avoid the use of
unnecessary, harmful, and unrecyclable
plastics. But an indiscriminate ban on
plastics is unrealistic – people in the
developing world will depend on it for the
foreseeable future to deliver clean water,
preserve food, and improve health care. In
many global applications, plastic can be a
more environmentally sustainable solution
than its substitutes. That doesn’t mean,
though, that plastic should end up in our
So we need other solutions that work in the
countries that really matter – those
industrializing countries where collection
rates are far below the 100% we see in
countries like Finland. But simply copying
what works elsewhere (i.e. massive
infrastructure projects) is not going to work
there. Instead, the key will be to make
plastics collection and management
economically viable, enabling local
entrepreneurs and businesses to do what
they do best. We believe this is possible –
we can help create compelling “economics
of collection.”
Doing so will take some effort – by the
consumer goods industry, the plastics
manufacturers, the development banks,
NGOs, and local governments. During the
next six months, Ocean Conservancy will
be working with these actors in a major
effort to identify a set of tools and
strategies that can make a real impact in
local, developing communities, where
pollution is the greatest.
The research tells us that “global peak
waste” won’t come before the year 2100.
That makes it even more urgent to solve
the case of the missing plastic. We can do
so provided we develop the right tools.
Let’s get this right.