Shocking 8 Million Metric Tons of Plastic is Dumped into the Ocean Each Year

First Posted: Feb 13, 2015 07:59 AM EST

Each year, tons of plastic is dumped into the ocean. Plastic grocery bags, beverage bottles, food wrappers, toys and other bits of plastic slowly drift out to sea from estuaries, seashores and landfills. Now, scientists have taken a closer look at the plastic being dumped in the world's oceans, and have found that a staggering 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010 from people living within 50 kilometers of the coastline.

"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," said Jenna Jambeck, one of the researchers, in a news release.

In order to understand exactly how much plastic was entering the ocean, the researchers started off with a large model of all sources of marine debris that was entering the ocean from land. The main idea was to develop models for each of these sources; after gathering rough estimates, though, it became clear that the mismanaged waste and solid waste dispersed was the biggest contributor. From there, the scientists focused on the plastic.

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

The researchers found that about 192 of the countries included in the model have no formal waste management systems. This drastically impacts how much plastic is being dumped into the oceans. In 2013, global plastic resin production reached 199 million tons, which is a 647 percent increase over numbers recorded in 1975. With this massive increase, it's clear that waste also increases. Although the scientists estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons going into the ocean, researchers only found between 6,350 and 245,000 metric tons floating on the surface. Obviously, the plastic is going somewhere.

"This paper gives us a sense of just how much we're missing," said Kara Law, co-author of the new study. "How much we need to find in the ocean to get 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."

The findings reveal just how much of a problem plastic waste can be. This, in turn, has important implications for the future.

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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