More than 171 trillion plastic pieces have flooded the ocean

New estimates from scientists have revealed two million tons worth of pieces of plastic are claimed to be swimming in the world’s oceans.

A group of scientists analysed records, which dated back to 1979, and added recent data collected on expeditions that trawl the seas with nets to collect plastics. The plastic counted in nets is then added to a mathematical model to produce a global estimate.

Lead author of the study, Dr Marcus Eriksen of the 5 Gyres Institute – a leading organisation involved in an empowered action against the global health crisis of plastic pollution – looked at data from between 1979 and 2019 and revealed a rapid and unprecedented increase in ocean plastics since 2005.

Around 16 trillion pieces of plastic were in the ocean in 2005, but in 2019 this had exceeded to 171 trillion.

Eriksen claims the devastating rise in plastic pollution has resulted for various reasons – an increase in more microplastics, which come as a result of older plastics breaking down over time, and a lack of international laws that deal with marine pollution. 

‘The system is being overwhelmed by all this pollution’, Dr Eriksen said. ‘We need preventative strategies and not just to focus on clean-up and recycling. We need to find replacements for single use [plastic] because recycling just doesn’t work.’

The highest concentration of ocean plastic is currently in the North Atlantic sea, with some large floating masses found elsewhere including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Authors of the study also suggest that the changing levels of pollution before 2000 may be due to the effectiveness of treaties or polices that govern pollution.

This news comes just after leading negotiators have agreed on a landmark United Nations Treaty with an aim of conserving 30% of the ocean. That agreement would create preserves where fishing would be banned and exploitative activities like mining would be limited.

However, the treaty does not outline details on how to stop marine plastic pollution, which, according to experts, is largely caused by runoff from the world’s land masses. Nations have agreed to curate a framework for a global plastic treaty, but no agreement has been reached.

The second round of UN negotiations on plastic are due to take place this spring.

Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen


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