Ugh—5 Trillion Pieces of Plastic Are Floating in the Ocean

CC BY 2.0. Flickr user killerturnip

We know that plastic pollution in the ocean is a big problem, but newly published research shows us just how big. Researchers estimate that there are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in our seas, weighing over 250,000 tons.

That’s roughly 700 pieces of plastic for every human on earth.

Researchers collected plastic pollution data from around the world between 2007 to 2013. They both physically collected samples of plastic debris, and documented plastic debris with visual surveys. These samples were then used to create a global model. The findings have been published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

Expeditions sampled all five of the world’s trash gyres, where plastic pollution is particularly dense, in addition to taking samples from other coastal regions and enclosed seas. Plastics of all sizes, from large debris to tiny microbeads, were found in all regions of the oceans.

plastic pollution in the ocean

PLOS ONE. Researchers model plastic pollution density for 4 different sizes of debris. /CC BY 2.0

About 90 percent of the total plastic count came in the form of microplastics, tiny chunks that may be no bigger than a grain of sand. These little pieces may come from larger plastics breaking down in the ocean, or they may be introduced into waterways by consumer products that use microbeads as exfoliants.

Microplastics are a particularly insidious form of pollution, because their tiny size makes it almost impossible to remove them from bodies of water—microplastics often pass through municipal water treatment facilities. At the same time, they are regularly ingested by fish and other marine animals. Toxins in these plastics can harm the animals that ingest them, and also move up the food chain to predators and humans.

Of course, larger items are still a big problem too. Sea animals can become entangled by plastic garbage like bags and discarded fishing nets.

Dr. Marcus Eriksen, one of the paper’s authors, is a co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, an organization dedicated to reducing plastic pollution. The organization not only conducts research about plastic pollution, but also advocates for polices to curb ocean degradation.