National Geographic News
A photo of trash scattered along Atalaia beach.

Tons of garbage wash up on the world's beaches, like this one in Brazil.

Photograph by Paulo Santos, Reuters

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published December 11, 2014

A new study on the amount of plastic pollution floating around the world's oceans found a lot of garbage but fewer small particles than researchers expected, raising new questions about how litter is interacting with the environment.

Scientists from the nonprofit advocacy group 5 Gyres published their findings this week in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE. The researchers collected plastic from parts of the ocean with nets and then used computer models to estimate the extent of the garbage problem worldwide.

They estimated that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 269,000 tons, is distributed across the ocean. While that's a lot of trash, researchers found only one-hundredth as many sand-size particles as their models had predicted.

Small plastic pieces have been a matter of much debate in recent months, because they are ingested by animals and can cause the death of fish, birds, and other creatures.

The new particles estimate is similar to that in a paper published in July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That study found only 35,000 tons of small plastic particles, while the researchers had expected to find millions of tons.

Where all the plastic is going in the ocean is a mystery, the lead scientist of the July study, Andres Cozar Cabañas, told National Geographic then. (Learn more about that study's surprising findings.)

Plastic production has quadrupled since the 1980s, and wind, waves, and sun break all that plastic into tiny bits.

"We don't know what this plastic is doing," Cozar said. "The plastic is somewhere—in the ocean life, in the depths, or broken down into fine particles undetectable by nets."

The 5 Gyres researchers noted on Wednesday that the plastic may be washing up on beaches or sinking down to the bottom quicker than expected. They also suspected "UV degradation, biodegradation, ingestion by organisms, [and] decreased buoyancy due to fouling organisms."

The scientists discovered that the amount of plastic was similar in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, which they found surprising "given that inputs are substantially higher in the northern than in the southern hemisphere," they wrote in the study. It suggests plastic may be moving around more easily than people previously thought, the researchers said.

Scientists have already noted that plastic in the ocean poses hazards to wildlife, from sea turtles to fish to corals. (Learn about ways people are trying to clean up plastic pollution.)

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40 comments
Ethne Conlin
Ethne Conlin

I take a couple of bags with me whereever I walk - pick up paper cardbboard

in one and plastic bottles, and cans in another - then take it to my local

recycling centre once a month . Schools and Parents should make sure the

kids dont litter - and make sure they know why it is so bad.  

It should be part of a childs education to keep their country litter free. ....  

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

The amount is formidable to say the least! The real problem is that the plastics are not digestible by the thousands of organisms in the ocean. These pieces can be microscopic in size and the animals accidentally eat it and it blocks their system and kills them. We get 80% of our oxygen from the smallest organisms in the ocean, And if this plastic starts affecting those then we are in some serious trouble! Plastics are going to become a new valuable commodity because of 3D printers. We will have the ability to print out what ever we want and the basic building blocks are plastic. They have printed a car, a working battery and working electrical circuits and it is only going to get easier and better. So stop and think about it for a second the next time you throw something away. You may be throwing away MUCH MORE than you think!!!

Ima Ryma
Ima Ryma

Human endeavors to compute

Amount of plastics oceans bound.

Missing is lots of this pollute,

Studies so far seem to have  found.

Plastic breaks down and moves about

When tossed to nature to deal with.

Just gone for good? - cuz there's no doubt,

Humans do love to live a myth.

Inquiring minds are at a loss.

The less and less plastics to find,

The more and more plastics to toss.

If out of sight, then out of mind!


Tiz mystery phenomenon -

Oh where have all the plastics gone?

Bonnie Stone
Bonnie Stone

People PLEASE throw away your trash do not leave it on the beaches

David  Njoroge
David Njoroge

This is very sad considering the vast sea creatures in the oceans. Some of these species we fascinate could soon be extinct. Am just wondering what the effect of those micro-plastics might be once ingested by fish. This is a Disaster. 

Dipanjan Mitra
Dipanjan Mitra

Indian sea beaches where tourists throng, are not behind either.

Deevy Patel DP
Deevy Patel DP

 large corp giants should work on cleaning the oceans as the money they every year is due this cause and it is their equal responsibility that they should try taking preventive steps to overcome this problem. it is truely said that right now only ocean wildlife may be suffering but that day itsn't  far when humans would suffer too because of this problem.

John Mazur
John Mazur

There is 20 million tons of gold in seawater, can you see it? I don't think so, There is more gold than plastic in the water.......

Peter B. Simmons
Peter B. Simmons

I find the picture very interesting.

New trash. 

Cups still inside one another.

No dirt, or organisms attached.

Uneven distribution, as if just dumped.

Kim Coghill
Kim Coghill

SPI Supports Efforts to Clear Waterways of Pollution

December 11, 2014

Contact:
Kimberly Coghill
202-974-5210
KCoghill@plasticsindustry.org

WASHINGTON - SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association advocates on behalf of programs designed to pursue zero waste. In response to the Five Gyres Institute’s recent release of a study that estimates the quantities of plastics in the world’s oceans (“Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea”), SPI President and CEO William R. Carteaux released the following statement:

“Marine debris is a serious pollution problem that impacts our environment, the economy and our way of life. As responsible plastics manufacturing professionals, SPI and its members are firmly committed to addressing marine litter issues with sound solutions that achieve our goal of pursuing zero waste."

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

At least trash is visible, even if unsightly. Don't forget the unseen chemicals in the water cycle that affect us all. Whenever we drink tap water we are all consuming a cocktail of drugs used for chemotherapy, contraception, pleasure etc. Our lakes and rivers now constitute a thin cocktail of drugs which can be seen to be affecting populations of wildlife.


All the drugs used by humans, both legal and illegal, enter the water supply and water cycle from the sewage system. Waste and bacteria is removed by treatment plants - but not chemicals! Not only can the weekly consumption of illegal drug use in cities and other areas be measured by testing the drinking supply but we are all drinking a cocktail of every drug prescribed by doctors. Many fish and bird populations are now collapsing as males lose their sperm count due to the amounts of the female contraceptive pill that now enter the sewage and water systems every day! 50% of the contraceptive pill leaves the body unaltered!


At least garbage is visible and relatively harmless, even if unsightly. It's the chemical brew we are ALL consuming that should be addressed.

Whitney Buchanan
Whitney Buchanan

The appropriate amount of plastic garbage in the ocean is ZERO pieces, and I don't care if the amount of water is 1.45 quintillion tons or 145 quintillion tons. That comparison is like saying that having a large family room justifies your guests putting out a couple of cigarettes on your carpet. Really? A mass the size of the Pacific Gyre is enormous by anybody's standards, and the resources we're steadily spending arming an ever-changing rotation of frenemies in the Middle East would be better spent cleaning up our mess.

Lorretta Rollinson
Lorretta Rollinson

The first plastic based on a synthetic polymer was made from phenol and formaldehyde, with the first viable and cheap synthesis methods invented in 1907, by Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian-born American living in New York state.

Which country must take responsibility and  all the costs for the clean up  of the oceans , instead of pretending it is everyone else's problem

John Mazur
John Mazur

Minuscule amount, 1.45 quintillion tons of seawater in the oceans, yes, that's 18 zero's, That is a minuscule amount of trash. Find a real problem instead of this made up garbage of a so called problem.....

Art Valla
Art Valla

So, how hard is it to turn plastic into fuel? Maybe we can develop a gizmo that mounts on the trunk of your car that you put plastic trash in and the car burns it like fuel. Sort of like the "Mr. Fusion" in Back to the Future.

Honestly, there has to be a lot of combustible material in all that plastic. All we need is a machine that scarfs it up, grinds it and then loads it in a barge for transport to shore. Maybe is gets processed right there. The "non-combustibles" get compacted so they sink and are just dumped over the side. Or maybe we find a use for them, like pavement for highways.

Anyway, there should be a use for such a substantial amount of "raw" material.

Karl Davis
Karl Davis

I bet they eventually find something is eating it.  The base elements that make up plastic could easily be food for something, especially the carbon content.

Jakob Stagg
Jakob Stagg

Yeah, right. They can count 5 trillion pieces of trash, but they can't figure out where $18 Trillion dollars went and what to do about it.

Tom P
Tom P

Story is not only misleading but headline is false. No one has found 5 T pieces of plastic in the oceans. It was ESTIMATED to be 5 T through a computer simulation program not a count of actual pieces of plastic. That computer simulation is based upon a preset notion about the amount of plastic in the waters.


There is nothing scientific about the study - they can not even get similar results in separate "studies" - which is the determination of the validity of a "scientific" study.

Leah McGovern
Leah McGovern

@Bonnie Stone People aren't necessarily leaving it on beaches. Its being left in parks, streets, cities and ends up in the storm water system before making its way into the ocean.. then in turn travelling around the world before washing up on a beach.

Tyler Anderson
Tyler Anderson

@David Njoroge


Microplastics attract organic pollutants such DDT, PCBs, PAHs and PBDEs. They are hydrophobic (oil) compounds so they raft to plastic. When ingested they are readily absorbed into the fat. They cause thyroid disruption, endocrine disruption, others act as neurotoxins and carcinogens 

Tyler Anderson
Tyler Anderson

@Andrew Booth

Yes but these chemicals are building up on plastic. Some of those chemicals cause real problems for animals and a lot of the plastic looks like food.

angelo c.
angelo c.

@John Mazur  there is a mass of churning plastic waste in the Pacific ocean 10 feet deep and double the size of Texas you goof!...it can be seen from space and is growing in size by 5% each year. Is that enough for ya? Google the Pacific Trash Vortex and educate yourself before making idiotic statements. Goof...

Tyler Anderson
Tyler Anderson

@Art Valla Imagine cleaning the oceans. imaging cleaning the surface of america. now multiply by 40. how much fuel could the plastic make?

Thats assuming all the water holds still while its cleaned

Good idea though

angelo c.
angelo c.

@Karl Davis  the sad thing is fish, turtles and birds are eating it as it's breaking up into little bits and pieces...looks like eggs and smaller sea creatures to marine life. These animals are breeding deformed offspring and often dying of starvation or complications from digesting toxic elelments.

Benjamin Watts
Benjamin Watts

@Jakob Stagg Those things are not related at all. The researchers from 5 Gyres weren't in charge of the US checkbook in 2001...

angelo c.
angelo c.

@Tom P  google The Pacific Trash Vortex. It's a mass of plastic and other waste that is churning in the Pacific 10 feet thick and double the size of Texas. So big in fact it can be seen from space...and growing by 5% each year. Whether it's 5 trillion pieces or 5 billion pieces...it has begun to reek havoc on marine wildlife...

Tony Mangione
Tony Mangione

@Tom P Tom, you are focusing on the accuracy of the number instead of the magnitude and relevance of the information. 5 Trillion pieces, or even 2 trillion pieces....who cares? the fact that we have A LOT of garbage and plastic in our oceans is disturbing enough. So the study may not be "scientifically" valid, but empirical evidence demonstrate that there is a problem....pictures of garbage on otherwise pristine beaches, fish dying of hunger with bloated stomachs......

Who cares about the numbers? You are right, but how can you be so myopic and so ideologically wrong at the same time?

John Mazur
John Mazur

@angelo c. It's comparable to a spec of dust, it may be unsightly, but a speck is a speck, facts don't lie, liars do and you're in la-la land....

jas stellar
jas stellar

@angelo c. please refrain from name calling. We are mature adults here.. if you cant control yourself then please take your trolling back to Facebook.

Andrew Roberts
Andrew Roberts

@angelo c. @Karl Davis There are also probably micro-organisms that are eating it as well.  There are micro-organisms that can eat just about anything.  It is already proven that they exist when it comes to eating oil and such.  So they are probably out there as well.

Tyler Anderson
Tyler Anderson

@Andrew Roberts @angelo c. @Karl Davis Oil has a lower bond energy than plastic so the same bacteria cant use it. There is some bacteria that can sort of digest some plastics but the problems with applying that to this problem are too many

dave powelson
dave powelson

@Andrew Roberts @angelo c. @Karl Davis Yes, in fact recent research showed that bacteria can degraded 10 % of polyethylene in 60 days (Yang et al. 2014 "Evidence of polyethylene biodegradation by bacterial strains from the guts of plastic-eating waxworms", Environmental Science and Technology 48, pp.13776-13784).

Franklin-Susan Howard
Franklin-Susan Howard

It's a joke, guess nature allowed for humans nature, sure it has a timing, but until oil runs out we goin to drive and fly

yaha

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