Trashing the Ocean: New Study Provides First Estimate of How Much Plastic Flows into the Ocean

8 million metric tons. That’s 17 billion pounds. That’s a big number. It’s also the amount of plastics that scientists have now estimated flow into the ocean every year from 192 countries with coastal access.

A groundbreaking study was published yesterday in the international journal Science and released at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement for Science in San Jose, California. This work is part of an ongoing international collaboration among scientists at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara to determine the scale, scope and impacts of marine debris – including plastics – on the health of the global ocean. Spearheaded by Dr. Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer from the University of Georgia, and other experts in oceanography, waste management and materials science, this is the first study to rigorously estimate the flow of plastic materials into the global ocean.

For the last decade, scientific evidence has been mounting that once plastic enters the ocean it can threaten a wide diversity of marine life (from the smallest of plankton to the largest of whales) through entanglement, ingestion or contamination. The images of how plastics kill wildlife aren’t pretty. But if we are going to stop this onslaught we must know how much material is entering and from where.

The numbers published yesterday are daunting: the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean from land each year exceeds 4.8 million tons (Mt), and may be as high as 12.7 Mt. This is one to three orders of magnitude (10 – 1000 fold) greater than the amount recently reported in the high-concentration garbage patches. The amount entering the ocean is growing rapidly with the global increase in population and plastics use, with the potential for cumulative inputs of plastic waste in the ocean as high as 250 Mt within 10 years—that’s more than 550 billion pounds. Discharges of plastic come from around the globe but the largest quantities are estimated to be coming from a relatively small number of rapidly developing economies. In fact, Dr. Jambeck’s study determined that the top 20 countries account for 83% of the mismanaged plastic waste available to enter the ocean.

This last point is important.  It indicates that the global ocean plastic problem is actually solvable if we target our efforts at the regions where the flow is greatest. And the greatest opportunity to stem the flow exists in a small number of countries in Asia. Jambeck and her colleagues calculated that improving waste management by 50% in the top 20 countries would result in a nearly 40% decline in inputs of plastic to the ocean.  While this certainly won’t be easy, this would make a big dent in the problem.  To do so, we must move from a mindset of solely trying to clean up the ocean to one where we work together to prevent plastics from entering the ocean in the first place.  At Ocean Conservancy, we should know.  For 30 years, we have coordinated the International Coastal Cleanup and our data have shown this problem isn’t getting any better. Now, Dr. Jambeck’s findings confirm it is actually getting worse.

At Ocean Conservancy, we are committed to science-based solutions to the oceans greatest challenges like food security, climate change and ocean pollution. Yesterday’s study should be a call to arms to improve waste collection systems and practices in those parts of the world where the contribution to plastic pollution in the ocean is greatest. The clock is ticking; we must confront this challenge before plastics overwhelm the ocean.

As ocean advocates, our mission is to protect the long-term health of our ocean. Yesterday’s study shows that to do so we must look toward the land for solutions.

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  1. Heartbreaking article. But I’ve shared it all over the place in the hope it will break even more hearts. Thank you, George Leonard. Everyone needs to know how much we’re destroying our oceans.

  2. We must be very vigilant about our trash. Don’t buy or acquire it, reuse, recycle, talk with stores about the way things are packaged, and call the companies that package their products and how they can improve. Most companies overpack their products or maybe the package is too large for the product. Refuse to buy overpacked products. And lastly, find out where your garbage is ultimately dumped. Many places have stopped using landfill and are dumping in the ocean. Have ongoing dialogues about these matters with friends as well as the parties connected to disposal.

  3. Man made dangers remain rampant affecting air, land, and water on our increasingly fragile planet called Earth. I support immediate and stringent measures to curb human degradation of our Earth.

  4. We all must make an effort everyday to not pollute our rivers,lakes, seas, or oceans. No one should put anything into waters that was not already there.

  5. What can I say, but this is a travesty. There needs to be a way to remove the trash and prevent more from making its way into our oceans.

  6. The Big Gas and Oil Plastic producing companies should be liable for the Clean up and held financially responsible for monitoring and reclaiming all of the various forms of Animal Life that is being poisoned from the bottom of the Sea to the Birds in the Clouds.

  7. Please share information on what we can do with plastic bottle tops. No where do I find a place near me in Poulsbo, WA that recycles them. Thanks so much.

  8. No one can stop this destruction but us! No one can stop the massacre of animals but us! No one can stop overfishing but us!
    When are we going to wake up and take care of our magnificent Earth? No one can do it but us!

  9. No one can stop this destruction but us! No one can stop the massacre of animals but us! No one can stop overfishing but us!
    When are we going to wake up and take care of our magnificent Earth? No one can do it but us!

  10. i would like to know statistic for my own country’s contribution to this catastrophe and ways to help raise awareness to prevent it. I live in Australia on the west coast.

    Thanks
    Deb

  11. We must educate the public so that people realize the harm caused by dumping trash in the ocean. Laws to discourage the practice must also be enacted.

  12. I read another article that the major contributors are China and India. I’ve been to India and seen the massive trash piles over there. I just wonder how much can really be done in these countries without solid leadership over there to enforce strict laws because most of the population over there probably don’t care about their plastic consumption, they’re too busy rising to the top, improving their lives and/or getting out of third world status. There are probably very few people who would actually change their habits to slow down plastic accumulation. I feel like a lot of people are that way, even in the U.S. about it, but it has to be way worse over in countries such as those, being incredibly passive towards issues like these. It would be too much of an “inconvenience”

  13. Hi,

    excellent post, many thanks for all the detailed information. Parts of your article I have used for a post on my blog, hope that is ok (have re-quoted your article here, on http://blog.active-outside.com/water/plastic-pollution-in-oceans-potential-solutions).

    Apart from all the clean-up hype currently talked about everywhere: I do agree with you that the in-flow is the key, not cleaning up. We need to produce and consume less plastic. One of the great ideas behind a solution I like: treat plastic waste as an energy source. And soon enough, global players will find lots of new ideas on how to use it to make money. That’s not my idea, of course, I’ve just come across it via “One Earth – One Ocean”.