Plastic bottles lying in the sewer. Shopping bags tangled in the branches. On a windy day, food wrappers run across the ground. While such examples of waste easily come to mind, they only hint at the serious and growing problem of plastic pollution, a problem largely hidden from view.
The problem with plastics is that they don’t degrade easily. They can break apart, but only into smaller pieces.
Many pieces end up in the sea. Tiny bits of plastic float in the world’s oceans. They wash up on remote islands. They collect in sea ice thousands of kilometers (miles) from the nearest city. They even blend with rock, creating a whole new material. Some scientists have proposed to call it plastiglomerate (pla-stih-GLOM-er-ut).
Exactly how much plastic is out there remains a mystery. Scientists are working hard trying to find out. So far, however, experts haven’t found as much floating plastic in the oceans as they expected. All that missing plastic is troubling, because the smaller a piece of plastic becomes, the more likely it is to make its way into a living thing, be it a tiny plankton or a huge whale. And that could mean real trouble.
In the soup
Plastic is used to make countless everyday products: from bottles to car bumpers, from homework folders to flower pots. In 2012, 288 million metric tons (317.5 million short tons) of plastic were produced worldwide. Since then, that amount has only grown.
How much of that plastic ends up in the oceans remains unknown: scientists estimate that around 10% does. And a recent study suggests up to 8 million tons of plastic (8.8 million short tons) of plastic in the ocean in 2010. How much plastic is that? “Five plastic bags filled with plastic for every foot of the coast in the world,” says Jenna Jambeck. She is the researcher at the University of Georgia, Athens, who led the new study. It was published on February 13 in Science.
Of those millions of tons, up to 80 percent had been used on land. So how did it get in the water? Storms have swept away some plastic waste in streams and rivers. These waterways then transported much of the waste downstream to the sea.