Ocean Plastic Pollution Could Double in a Decade—but There’s a Solution

A new report estimates that the seas contain the equivalent of five grocery bags full of plastic for every foot of coastline around the world.

Plastic samples collected from a beach near Caleta de Famara in the Canary Islands, Spain, in November 2014. (Photo: Malin Jacob)

Feb 12, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

Think the ocean plastic pollution problem is bad? It’s far more extensive than was thought, and it’s about to get worse, according to a new study published Thursday in the journal Science.

“The results are staggering,” said report coauthor Kara Lavender Law, a research professor at the Massachusetts-based Sea Education Association. “Our analysis shows that by 2025 the amount of plastic waste available to enter the oceans doubles.”

The report examines so-called mismanaged plastic—such things as plastic water bottles and food wrappers that people carelessly discard that get washed into the ocean. Researchers used data from the World Bank to calculate that between 10.5 billion and 28 billion tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010 from people living within 31 miles of the coastline. That year, the world generated a total of 600 billion tons of plastic waste.

The scientists compiled a list of the top waste-generating countries. Most of the plastic trash comes from China, India, and other countries experiencing rapid economic growth. “Their consumption is rapidly accelerating, but the infrastructure hasn’t caught up yet,” said Law.

Developed nations such as the United States have good waste management systems. The problem? “We produce so much trash per person that even the small amount that leaks out adds up to a huge number, based on the number of people living near the coast,” Law said.

The researchers recommend that high-income countries reduce their waste in general and reduce plastic where it’s not necessary. In other words, use reusable coffee mugs instead of to-go cups, replace plastic bags with a lunch box, and avoid disposable packing supplies. “Our daily personal choices are contributing to this plastic waste problem,” Law said.

“This is a problem we can solve,” she added. “We’ve identified a major source—this is waste, so there are systems to capture it.”

The scientists now want to create accurate estimates of other ocean plastic pollution, such as trash produced by natural disasters and fishing gear.

A continuing question is where all the trash is going. Law said the volume of ocean plastic estimated in the new report is 20 to 2,000 times larger than the projections scientists previously made from observations on the ocean’s surface.

“There is a whole lot of trash in the ocean we can’t account for,” she said. “Has it broken down into microscopic bits? Is it washing ashore? Or is it on the seafloor?”

The most abundant form of plastic is what’s known as microplastic—fingernail-size pieces that can be eaten by seals, dolphins, and other marine life. Plastic also acts as a sponge for PCBs, DDT, and other toxins.

Scientists are still trying to figure out what happens to the creatures that consume those chemical-ridden bits of plastic. “Does it make it up the food web to food supply?” Law said. “It’s a rising concern, and people are actively researching that effect to see what the consequences are.”