A recent study suggests the amount of plastic in the ocean increases by more than four million metric tons each year. Researchers with the University of California, who conducted the study, further concluded that a vast majority if the waste originates in Asia.
In addition to being unsightly, ocean plastic poses a serious threat to marine life. When ingested, plastic can cause animals and fish to choke or experience intestinal blockage. Toxic chemicals, which are released by plastic particles, are also a significant concern.
Professor Kara Lavender Law, with the Sea Education Association, co-authored the study. Law said the numbers could be misleading, as the researchers focused on “plastic that floats.” Unfortunately, the ocean floor and beaches are also littered with an unsettling amount of plastic waste.
According to the study, China tops the list of polluters. Researchers estimate China releases up to 2.4 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean each year. In contrast, the United States is responsible for an estimated 77,000 metric tons of ocean plastic.
As reported by New Scientist, the countries responsible for a majority of the waste have two things in common: “high coastal populations and low rates of plastic recycling.”
UCSB Professor Roland Gryer, who also co-authored the study, said cleaning up the ocean plastic would be “simply unfeasible.” Instead, he suggests an increased focus on prevention.
“… we need to prevent plastic from entering the oceans in the first place through better waste management, more reuse and recycling, better product design and material substitution.”
Researchers with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis forecast ocean waste will reach an estimated “155 million metric tons by 2025” — without any further preventative measures. However, NCEAS Director Frank Davis is confident that there are “achievable solutions that could reverse the alarming trend in plastics being dumped into our oceans.”
As reported by R & D Magazine, the University of Florida researchers have suggested expanding waste management and encouraging manufacturers to reduce plastic waste in developing countries. Industrialized countries can reduce waste by managing manufacturing waste, eliminating litter, and “curbing the use of single-use plastic” products.
Although a large portion of the plastic waste is visible on the ocean’s surface, much of the waste is broken up into microplastics — which are far more difficult to detect. Marcus Eriksen, who led the study, said microplastics often settle on the ocean floor or become trapped in ice. Therefore, “we should stop thinking of plastic waste in terms of unsightly chunks of debris… and instead see it more as a pervasive ‘plastic smog’ of tiny particles.”
As the amount of ocean plastic is expected to increase in coming years, it is imperative that manufacturers and individuals work together to reduce waste and prevent irreparable damage to the world’s oceans and marine life.
[Image via Getty Images Europe]