A growing plastic smog, now estimated to be over 170 trillion plastic particles afloat in the world’s oceans—Urgent solutions required

A research paper published by 5 Gyres scientists and other research collaborators in the journal PLOS ONE reveals there are more than 170 trillion plastic particles, weighing approximately 2 million tonnes, afloat in the world’s oceans. (Plastic Pollution Coalition notes that this study covers plastic particles found on the ocean’s surface, and plastic particles also exist below the surface making the ocean’s overall plastic load much greater.)

By evaluating trends of ocean plastic from 1979 to 2019, the authors observe a rapid increase of marine plastic pollution and make an urgent call for policy measures, like a legally binding global plastics treaty, focused on source reduction and reuse rather than recycling and cleanup.

There is virtually nowhere on Earth today that remains untouched by plastic and ecosystems are evolving to adapt to this new context. While plastics have revolutionized our modern world, new and often unforeseen effects of plastic and its production are continually being discovered. Plastics are entangled in multiple ecological and social crises, from the plasticization of the oceans to the embeddedness of plastics in political hierarchies.

The complexities surrounding the global plastic crisis require an interdisciplinary approach and the materialities of plastic demand new temporalities of thought and action. Plastic Legacies brings together scholars from the fields of marine biology, psychology, anthropology, environmental studies, Indigenous studies, and media studies to investigate and address the urgent socio-ecological challenges brought about by plastics. Contributors consider the unpredictable nature of plastics and weigh actionable solutions and mitigation processes against the ever-changing situation. Moving beyond policy changes, this volume offers a critique of neoliberal approaches to tackling the plastics crisis and explores how politics and communicative action are key to implementing social, cultural, and economic change.

Editors: Trisia Farrelly, Sy Taffel, Ian Shaw

Contributors: Sasha Adkins, Sven Bergmann, Stephanie Borrelle, Tridibesh Dey, Eva Giraud, Christina Gerhardt, John Holland, Deidre McKay, Laura McLauchlan, Mike Michael, Imogen Napper, Tina Ngata, Sabine Pahl, Padmapani L. Perez, Jennifer Provencher, Elyse Stanes, Johanne Tarpgaard, Richard Thompson, and Lei Xiaoyu.

Microplastics have been extensively documented in marine ecosystems and food webs with devastating impacts. To solve this global crisis, identifying the polymer composition is key for resolving the material origin, geographic source, and ecosystem life cycle of ocean plastics. Visually based techniques, importantly, are not diagnostic. Raman spectroscopy is an increasingly preferred identification method for its accuracy and reduced likelihood of misinterpretation, though it can be inaccessible due to cost of paywalled spectral libraries and availability of relevant polymer spectra for comparison. Here, we provide an open-access reference library of high-quality, broad-spectrum Raman spectra of major polymer categories germane to marine environments. The library includes high-quality spectra from: (a) pristine anthropogenic polymers newly sourced from manufacturers (n = 40), (b) weathered anthropogenic polymers collected from used consumer, beachcast, agricultural, and fishery sources (n = 22), and (c) biological polymers representing diverse marine taxa, trophic levels, and tissues (n = 17). We hope this reference library can help this rapidly expanding scientific community and facilitate progress in the global plastic pollution crisis.

Surface water samples taken around the western and northern regions of Iceland are assessed for plastics using a low-tech aquatic debris instrument (LADI), which is an accessible, homemade, low-cost version of a traditional manta trawl. Results show an assortment of meso- and microplastics across 6 sampling sites. A close look at sample composition is discussed, including its relationship to Iceland’s sizable commercial fishing industry. This study is among the first to quantify and identify microplastic particles collected in Icelandic nearshore surface waters.

The Plastiverse is a live, crowd-sourced repository for tools, databases, protocols, and information related to micro- and macro-plastics research. Made by scientists, for scientists, as well as members of communities who are seeking ways to study plastic pollution where they live.

Plastiverse is committed to making science open and accessible to reduce institutional, economic, and logistical barriers against addressing plastic pollution globally. It provides a vast number of software, databases, methods, and other resources to enable plastic pollution research.

Highlighting the growing problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, whales swimming off the California coast are ingesting millions of tiny pieces of plastic every day, a new study led by marine biologists at Stanford University has found. Blue whales, the largest animals on Earth, are each consuming about 10 million pieces of “micro-plastic” daily — or as much as 95 pounds a day in some cases — nearly all of it found in the krill and other tiny organisms they eat. Smaller fin whales are ingesting roughly 6 million pieces of the confetti-like litter a day as they feed. And humpback whales that primarily eat fish are eating about 200,000 pieces a day, the study estimated.