8 Million Metric Tons Of Plastic Go Into The Oceans Every Year, Research Finds

An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year, according to new research from the University of Georgia and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

To be exact, the research found that between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic found its way into the ocean in 2010, as a result of actions taken by people living within 50 kilometers of the coastline. So, in all reality, the figure could bpvery easily be higher than 8 million metric tons a year.

Plastic trash into the ocean every year infographic

The research also provided some other interesting figures, including: the “192 countries with a coast bordering the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, Mediterranean and Black seas produced a total of 2.5 billion metric tons of solid waste” in 2010. Of those 2.5 billion metric tons, 275 million metric tons was plastic. That’s an incredible amount of plastic being produced and discarded every year — and those are just the figures for coastal countries.

The new findings are detailed in a paper just published in the journal Science.

Lead researcher Jenna Jambeck, an assistant professor of environmental engineering in the UGA College of Engineering stated: “Eight million metric tons is the equivalent to finding five grocery bags full of plastic on every foot of coastline in the 192 countries we examined.”

A recent press release provides more:

Plastic pollution in the ocean was first reported in the scientific literature in the early 1970s. In the 40 years since, there were no rigorous estimates of the amount and origin of plastic debris making its way into the marine environment until Jambeck’s current study.

Part of the issue is that plastic is a relatively new problem coupled with a relatively new waste solution. Plastic first appeared on the consumer market in the 1930s and ’40s. Waste management didn’t start developing its current infrastructure in the US, Europe and parts of Asia until the mid-1970s. Prior to that time, trash was dumped in unstructured landfills — Jambeck has vivid memories of growing up in rural Minnesota, dropping her family’s garbage off at a small dump and watching bears wander through furniture, tires and debris as they looked for food.

As the gross national income increases in countries, so does (Author’s note: “has” not “does” would be more accurate) the use of plastic. In 2013, the most current numbers available, global plastic resin production reached 299 million tons, a 647% increase over numbers recorded in 1975. Plastic resin is used to make many one-use items like wrappers, beverage bottles and plastic bags.

With the mass increase in plastic production, the idea that waste can be contained in a few-acre landfill or dealt with later is no longer viable. That was the mindset before the onslaught of plastic, when most people piled their waste — glass, food scraps, broken pottery–on a corner of their land or burned or buried it. Now, the average American generates about 5 pounds of trash per day with 13% of that being plastic.

But knowing how much plastic is going into the ocean is just one part of the puzzle. With between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons going in, researchers like Law are only finding between 6,350 and 245,000 metric tons floating on the ocean’s surface.

Plastic debris beach

The researcher noted: “This paper gives us a sense of just how much we’re missing, how much we need to find in the ocean to get to the total. Right now, we’re mainly collecting numbers on plastic that floats. There is a lot of plastic sitting on the bottom of the ocean and on beaches worldwide (and killing highly endangered sea turtles such as the giant leatherback).”

According to the researchers involved in this work, forecasts are for 155 million metric tons going into the ocean between now and 2025. “Peak waste” has been predicted by the World Bank to be “achieved” some point before 2100, but the specifics aren’t clear.

“We’re being overwhelmed by our waste,” Jambeck opined. “But our framework allows us to also examine mitigation strategies like improving global solid waste management and reducing plastic in the waste stream. Potential solutions will need to coordinate local and global efforts.”

Hmm. Perhaps that’s the sort of thinking that makes sense to those in academia, but I can’t help but be highly skeptical of effective solutions emerging on the global level. Regional and citywide bans to unnecessary plastic use (shopping bags in particular) seem to be one of the few effective strategies used to date.

There are limits to what could/can be accomplished via such approaches, but they seem to exceed those available via tenuous international psuedo-agreements — such as those that have come about via the climate change summits.

Image Credit: Lindsay Robinson/UGA

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