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.

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.

Much of what you’ve heard about plastic pollution may be wrong. Instead of a great island of trash, the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of manmade debris spread over hundreds of miles of sea—more like a soup than a floating garbage dump. Recycling is more complicated than we were taught: less than nine percent of the plastic we create is reused, and the majority ends up in the ocean. And plastic pollution isn’t confined to the open ocean: it’s in much of the air we breathe and the food we eat.  

In Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis, journalist Erica Cirino brings readers on a globe-hopping journey to meet the scientists and activists telling the real story of the plastic crisis. From the deck of a plastic-hunting sailboat with a disabled engine, to the labs doing cutting-edge research on microplastics and the chemicals we ingest, Cirino paints a full picture of how plastic pollution is threatening wildlife and human health. Thicker Than Water reveals that the plastic crisis is also a tale of environmental injustice, as poorer nations take in a larger share of the world’s trash, and manufacturing chemicals threaten predominantly Black and low-income communities.  

There is some hope on the horizon, with new laws banning single-use items and technological innovations to replace plastic in our lives. But Cirino shows that we can only fix the problem if we face its full scope and begin to repair our throwaway culture. Thicker Than Water is an eloquent call to reexamine the systems churning out waves of plastic waste.