We dump 8.8 million tons of plastic into oceans
Each year about 8.8 million tons of plastic ends up in the world oceans. The quantity is much higher than previous estimates, according to a new study. It tracked marine debris from its source.
That's the equivalent of five grocery bags full of plastic debris dotting each foot of coastline around the world. So says the study's lead author, Jenna Jambeck. She is an environment engineering professor at the University of Georgia.
At the current rate, Jambeck projects that by 2025, the total accumulated plastic trash in the oceans will reach around 170 million tons. That's based on population trends and continued waste management disposal problems. But there may be some early signs of change, she said.
More than half of the plastic waste that flows into the oceans comes from just five countries. They are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. The U.S. is ranked No. 20. Europe and the U.S. are not mismanaging their collected waste. The plastic trash coming from those countries is due to litter, researchers said.
China is responsible for 2.4 million tons of plastic that makes its way into the ocean. That's nearly 28 percent of the world total. The U.S. contributes 77,000 tons. That is less than 1 percent, according to the study published in the journal Science. This is mostly because developed countries have systems to trap and collect plastic waste, Jambeck said.
"We need to wake up and see our waste," Jambeck said. "I think the problem in some ways has sort of snuck up around us."
The amount of plastics estimated to be going into the water is equal to how much tuna is fished per year. So "we are taking out tuna and putting in plastic, said study co-author, Kara Lavendar Law.
Nancy Wallace is head of the marine debris program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She said plastic waste in the water is eaten by sea life. It also collects ocean toxins. And, there's a clean-up cost and it affects tourism.
Jambeck used World Bank statistics on 192 countries' waste streams to track and estimate plastic pollution from the source. She examined how much waste is generated and the percentage that reaches the oceans.
Jambeck's estimates were for 2010 and ranged between 5 and 14 million tons of plastic. The middle scenario estimate is 8.8 million tons.
Previous estimates were less than 1 million tons, based on samples. Scientists know that much can be hidden in the bottom of the ocean and in places researchers don't get to.
Last year Andrs Czar of the University of Cadiz in Spain estimated the waste at about 35,000 tons. Cozar said his team acknowledged that "99 percent of the ocean's plastic is missing."
Critical thinking challenge: Why do some countries contribute more trash to the oceans than others?