Newspaper article International New York Times

Over 5 Trillion Pieces of Plastic? It's Enough to Cover the Oceans

Newspaper article International New York Times

Over 5 Trillion Pieces of Plastic? It's Enough to Cover the Oceans

Article excerpt

A study published on Wednesday estimates that plastic weighing a total of 269,000 tons can be found in the world's oceans.

It is no secret that the world's oceans are swimming with plastic debris -- the first floating masses of trash were discovered in the 1990s. But researchers are starting to get a better sense of the size and scope of the problem.

A study published on Wednesday estimates that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing a total of 269,000 tons, can be found in the world's oceans.

The study, in the journal PLOS One, like an earlier one, found that the amount of small particles of plastic the size of grains of sand may be lower than expected.

The fact that the small particles seem to be disappearing, however, is hardly good news. Plastics become coated with toxins like PCBs and other pollutants. Researchers are concerned that the fish and other organisms that consume the particles could re-absorb the toxins, and pass those toxins along to other predators when they are eaten.

"Plastics are like a cocktail of contaminants floating around in the aquatic habitat," said Chelsea M. Rochman, a marine ecologist at the University of California, Davis. "These contaminants may be magnifying up the food chain."

The ships conducting the latest research traveled the seas collecting small bits of plastic with nets and estimating worldwide figures from their samples using computer models. Bottles, toothbrushes, bags, toys and other debris are known to float across the seas and gather at "gyres" where currents converge.

The pieces of garbage collide because of currents and wave action, and sunlight makes them brittle, turning these floating junkyards into "shredders," producing smaller and smaller bits of plastic that spread far and wide, said Marcus Eriksen, the leader of the effort and a co-founder of 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit organization that combines scientific research with activism.

When the survey teams looked for plastics floating in the water that were the size of grains of sand, they were surprised to find far fewer samples than expected -- 100 times fewer particles than their models predicted. …

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