From water bottles to the microbeads in our face wash, we send millions of tons of plastic into the ocean every year. Not only does it amount to $13 billion in damages to the environment, but it costs the lives of the marine animals that end up choking on our garbage. A new study has found even grimmer news: About 99 percent of the ocean’s plastic is missing, and there’s a chance that a large amount is ending up on our dinner plates.
The study, published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reported data collected from all major ocean gyres in 2010 and 2011. When researchers used mesh nets to determine how much plastic the garbage patches have, they didn’t find as much trash as expected.
“We can’t account for 99 percent of the plastic that we have in the ocean,” lead researcher Carlos Duarte told Science. “There is potential for this plastic to enter the global ocean food web.… And we are part of [it].”
According to Duarte, there’s a good chance that marine wildlife is eating the ocean’s plastic, which could look like fish food after waves and sunlight break it down into tiny pieces.
It’s indisputable that animals are eating our trash, according to oceanographer Peter Davison of the Farallon Institute for Advanced Ecosystem Research, but we don’t know the consequences. The ingested material could end up in the tuna that we eat, or as Davison told Science, plastic in fish “may dissolve back into the water…or for all we know they’re puking or pooping it out, and there’s no long-term damage. We don’t know.”
Where else could all that plastic be going? Microbes could be ingesting it. It could be washing ashore or degrading into nearly undetectable pieces. Animal feces could be dragging it down to the ocean floor.
Or are we simply producing less trash than scientists assume? The study, after all, used estimates of the amount of plastic entering the ocean from almost a half century ago.
“We’re desperately in need of a better estimate of how much plastic is entering the ocean annually,” oceanographer Kara Law told Science. “I don’t think we can conceive of the worst-case scenario, quite frankly. We really don’t know what this plastic is doing.”
It would be nice to assume that we’re learning our lesson and throwing away less of the pesky material. But solid evidence—just Google “Pacific Garbage Patch”—tells us that we don’t need more alarming statistics to force us into doing less damage to the planet.