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

Posted On February 13, 2015 by

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.