Ocean Plastic Sees Staggering Increase Since 2005, Study Finds

The rate of plastic entering the oceans could accelerate 2.6 times by 2040 if left unchecked, say researchers.

A hand holding a pile of plastic peices and sand
A handful of plastic washed ashore at Kamilo Beach, Hawaii.

The 5 Gyres Institute / CC-BY 4.0

The first study describing the discovery of marine plastic debris was published in the journal Science in 1972; the researchers reported that "plastic particles, in concentrations averaging 3500 pieces and 290 grams per square kilometer, are widespread in the western Sargasso Sea."

After 50 years, what have we done about it? There has been no shortage of press about plastic pollution in the ocean. Photographs of seabirds and marine life stuffed with and/or entangled in plastic have especially brought the crisis to the public eye. But the impact goes far beyond whales and albatrosses. According to the United Nations, marine debris is "negatively affecting more than 800 animal species and causing serious losses to many countries' economies."

Close-Up Of Bird In Plastic Garbage
Tsvi Braverman / EyeEm / Getty Images

With all of the attention this disaster-in-the-making has received, one would think that efforts to quell the crisis would be making an impact. Companies have been clamoring about reduced plastic in packaging, while others boast of using ocean plastic in their goods—to name just a few of the ways that corporations assert that they are helping the problem.

Yet a new study reveals a "rapid and unprecedented" increase in ocean plastics since 2005.

For the study, Marcus Eriksen from The 5 Gyres Institute and colleagues analyzed a global dataset of ocean-surface-level plastic pollution recorded between 1979 and 2019 from 11,777 stations across six marine regions (North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, Indian, and Mediterranean). 

The researchers took into consideration a number of factors, accounting for wind, site selection, and biases due to under-sampling. All told, the authors found a staggering rise in the abundance and distribution of surface plastics in the world's oceans, with a significant and rapid increase since 2005.

They estimate that over 170 million—up to 358 trillion—plastic particles, weighing up to 4.9 million tons, were afloat in 2019.

Since numbers that vast are hard for the human brain to comprehend, consider this: A trillion seconds is 32,000 years. If each of those 358 trillion plastic particles represented a second, they would equal 11,456,000 years.

Single use plastic bottles seen floating in polluted water near Cardiff Bay in Cardiff, United Kingdom.
Single-use plastic bottles seen floating in polluted water near Cardiff Bay in Cardiff, United Kingdom.

Matthew Horwood / Getty Images

While the authors acknowledge that the results are biased towards trends in the North Pacific and North Atlantic because that is where much of the data was collected, they still have a good idea about what's behind the unprecedented rise, noting that "the rapid increase from 2005 reflects the global growth of plastic production, or changes in waste generation and management."

Research like this that quantifies the problem is essential since it can serve as a critical baseline to help address marine plastic pollution. There have been studies before, but they have focused primarily on northern-hemisphere oceans near the world’s most industrialized nations, while other studies have found increases in ocean plastic over shorter timespans, the authors explain.

Not surprisingly, the authors are urgently calling for widespread policy changes—without which they predict the rate that plastics enter our waters will increase approximately 2.6 times by 2040. They recommend legally binding international policy intervention to "minimize the ecological, social, and economic harm of aquatic plastic pollution."

"We've found an alarming trend of exponential growth of microplastics in the global ocean since the millennium, reaching over 170 trillion plastic particles," says Eriksen. "This is a stark warning that we must act now at a global scale. We need a strong, legally binding UN Global Treaty on plastic pollution that stops the problem at the source."

Closer to home (for those of us living in the United States), the non-profit, Oceana, sent a statement to Treehugger about America's contributions to the problem. Christy Leavitt, Oceana plastics campaign director, says:

"The 5 Gyres study highlights the unrelenting tsunami of plastic pollution invading our oceans, and it’s time to create real change for our blue planet. Our oceans and marine animals are choking on plastics ... enough is enough. The United States produces more plastic waste than any other country, and Americans are fed up. Oceana’s recent polling shows strong bipartisan support for national, state, and local policies that address the plastic crisis. We need to stop the constant flow of plastics into our oceans, and our elected leaders at all levels of government need to take action to reduce the production and use of unnecessary single-use plastic. The time to act is now."

View Article Sources
  1. "Plastics on the Sargasso Sea Surface": Science