Plastic bottles lying in the gutter. Grocery bags tangled in branches. Food wrappers scuttling across the ground on a windy day. Although such examples of litter easily come to mind, they only hint at the serious and growing problem of plastic pollution — a problem mostly hidden from view. The problem with plastics is they do not easily degrade. They may break down, but only into smaller pieces. The smaller those pieces get, the more places they can go. Many pieces wind up at sea. Tiny bits of plastic float throughout 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 meld with rock, creating a whole new material. Some scientists have proposed calling it plastiglomerate (pla-stih-GLOM-er-ut).
Exactly how much plastic is out there remains a mystery. Scientists are hard at work trying to find out. So far, though, experts haven’t found as much plastic floating in the oceans as they expected. All that missing plastic is worrisome, because the smaller a plastic bit becomes, the more likely it will make its way into a living thing, whether a tiny plankton or an enormous whale. And that may spell some real trouble.
Into the soup
Plastics are used to make countless everyday products — from bottles to auto bumpers, from homework folders to flowerpots. In 2012, 288 million metric tons (317.5 million short tons) of plastic were produced worldwide. Since then, that amount has only grown.
Just how much of that plastic winds up in the oceans remains unknown: Scientists estimate about 10 percent does. And one recent study suggests as much as 8 million metric tons (8.8 million short tons) of plastic wound up in the ocean in 2010 alone. How much plastic is that? “Five plastic bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world,” says Jenna Jambeck. She’s the researcher from the University of Georgia, in Athens, who led the new study. It was published February 13 in Science.
Of those millions of tons, as much as 80 percent had been used on land. So how did it get into the water? Storms washed some plastic litter into streams and rivers. These waterways then carried much of the trash downstream to the sea.
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