170 trillion bits of microplastics in the world’s oceans

The rate of microplastics entering the oceans could accelerate 2.6 times by 2040 if left unchecked.

The rate of microplastics entering the oceans could accelerate 2.6 times by 2040 if left unchecked.

There has been a rapid and unprecedented increase in ocean plastics since 2005, according to a global dataset of ocean plastic pollution between 1979 and 2019. The study, which includes an Australian among its authors, estimates 82-358 trillion plastic particles (mean = 171 trillion plastic particles, primarily microplastics) weighing between 1.1-4.9 million tons (mean = 2.3 million tons) were floating on the surface of the ocean in 2019. The researchers call for urgent, legally binding international policies to minimise aquatic plastic pollution’s ecological, social, and economic harm.

A global dataset of ocean plastic pollution between 1979 and 2019 reveals a rapid and unprecedented increase in ocean plastics since 2005. This is according to a study published March 8, 2023, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Marcus Eriksen from The 5 Gyres Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Understanding plastic accumulation in the oceans to date could provide a critical baseline to help address this form of pollution. Previous studies have focused primarily on northern-hemisphere oceans near the world’s most industrialised nations, while other studies have found ocean plastic increases over shorter periods.

What the study on microplastic ingress achieved

In this study, Eriksen and colleagues looked at data on ocean-surface-level plastic pollution collected between 1979-2019 from 11,777 stations across six marine regions (North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, Indian, and Mediterranean).

After accounting for wind, site selection, and biases due to under-sampling, the authors’ model showed a significant and rapid increase since 2005 in the global ocean abundance and distribution of plastics in the ocean surface layer. An estimated 82-358 trillion plastic particles (mean = 171 trillion plastic particles, primarily microplastics), weighing between 1.1-4.9 million tons (mean = 2.3 million tons), were afloat in 2019. A relative lack of data from 1979-1990 prevented trend analysis. Between 1990 and 2004, plastic levels showed fluctuations with no clear trend.

Though these results are biased towards trends in the North Pacific and North Atlantic, where most of the data were collected, Eriksen and coauthors suggest the rapid increase from 2005 reflects the global growth of plastic production or changes in waste generation and management. Without widespread policy changes, the researchers predict the rate at which plastics enter our waters will increase approximately 2.6 times by 2040. They call for urgent, legally binding international policy intervention to minimise aquatic plastic pollution’s ecological, social, and economic harm.

Marcus Eriksen, co-founder and researcher from The 5 Gyres Institute, adds: “We’ve found an alarming trend of exponential growth of microplastics in the global ocean since the millennium, reaching over 170 trillion plastic particles. This is a stark warning that we must act now globally. We need a strong, legally binding UN Global Treaty on plastic pollution that stops the problem at the source.”

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