How much plastic is in the oceans?
Full-length article and recording
Managing Plastic Waste and Mitigating the Garbage Patches
Thanks to the Earth Engineering Center for making this knowledge sharing possible
Katrina Mitchell (Co-founder, be Waste Wise)
How much plastic is in the oceans and what do we know about it?
Dr. Bill Francis (Algalita): We don’t know as much as we would really like to know. But what we do know is that all of the oceans are interrelated. They’ve got these tall thoroughfares , roads, highways and interstates that connect them. So when we talk about something that’s going on in the North Pacific, for example, we can’t forget that there is an interrelationship between that particular part of the planet and all the other oceans. I think Nicholas touched on the several major gyres within the world’s oceans. So, to try to give you a feel for this and put some more reality on how much plastic is out there, we have taken almost 700 samples by dragging a trawl behind a vessel, then filtering the sea water and collecting those samples. Out of those almost 700 samples that has been taken from all over the world (i.e., Indian Ocean, North and South Atlantic, the Sargasso Sea, the Antarctic, South and North Pacific) only 3 samples were plastic free.
Now there are different concentrations and level of plastic in the oceans varies depending upon all kinds of things like depth under the surface of water, sea conditions of time, wind out there, etc. But we found out that the average concentration of plastic is approximately one tenth of a gram per cubic meter of ocean water. That’s not very much and so, when you got that smaller concentration, it’s really pretty hard to see this. When people talk about gyres in the garbage patch been twice the size of Texas, it’s not that there is a huge floating island of plastic or any other marine debris sitting out there as one mass. It is very well dispersed, over time a lot of things have broken up into smaller and smaller pieces. But the concern is that the plastic is essentially everywhere and it is increasing. The research we started in 1999 and have continued since then, shows a very consistent increase in concentration.
So, we’re filling oceans up with plastic albeit at a rate that’s hard to see with naked eye, but the impacts are many and they are serious. We’re looking at developing rafts for invasive species to move from one area to another and who knows how many species of life we are actually going to lose because of that cross-contamination. We’re definitely affecting the life and the health of the marine species through entanglement, indigestion and also through the potential of serious toxic materials being transferred to those life forms.
We have got a big problem which is scattered everywhere and unfortunately it’s kind of small, so small that it is very hard to go out there and find a way to clean it up. So, we have to do something and that’s why I appreciate what Beth, Nicholas and others are doing. We have to stop it at its source to keep it from getting into the ocean in the first place. Eventually the ocean will heal, but we have to stop the pollution from getting in there. As Beth says, it’s not just the oceans; it’s pervasive throughout land as well.
Book: Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too (buying options)
Websites: Plastic Pollution Coalition;