More than all the gold ever mined

The garbage in the oceans problem is worse than people thought. Much worse.

More than 5 trillion pieces of plastic are afloat in the world’s oceans, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

Ranging in size from a grain of salt to larger than a plastic water bottle, the plastic pollution in the world’s oceans weighs more than 269,000 tons—far more than all the gold ever mined in the world and far more than scientists previously estimated.

And that’s in just a few decades. Good job, humans.

Study author Marcus Eriksen and his team from the 5 Gyres Institute, based in Los Angeles, spent tens of thousands of hours scouring the world’s oceans for plastic between 2007 and 2012. They used trawling nets to scoop particles from the ocean surface and visually counted very large pieces. The study provides a snapshot of the magnitude of marine plastic pollution and its movement around the world’s oceans, said Eriksen.

The estimate is much higher than what previous studies found.

It’s interesting what a hard time we have getting an accurate bead on just how destructive we are as a species.

“It’s evidence that there is too much plastic in the ocean,” Cózar said in an email. “Only two or three generations have been using plastic materials. This provides evidence that the current model of managing plastic materials is economically and ecologically unsustainable.”

Garbage in, garbage in some more.



  1. says

    Wow, this is truly depressing and the situation may be even worse than these numbers suggest as described in the study excerpt below. Even if the whole world magically stopped polluting the oceans today, the ripple effects of the current pollution will be felt for decades to come (maybe centuries?). The point about plastics “within organisms” is particularly disturbing.

    However, we stress that our estimates are highly conservative, and may be considered minimum estimates. Our estimates of macroplastic are based on a limited inventory of ocean observations, and would be vastly improved with standardization of methods and more observations. They also do not account for the potentially massive amount of plastic present on shorelines, on the seabed, suspended in the water column, and within organisms.

  2. says

    Nit-pick: “all the gold ever mined” is a lousy comparison. I read somewhere (Galbraith?) that that’s a quantity that could be packed into a large ocean liner. The stuff really isn’t that abundant (which is why it could be used as a currency).

    But, plastic: yeah, scarey.

  3. warriorpoet says

    Nit-pick of a nit-pick. Plastic is far less dense than gold. 1 ton of gold would easily fit inside of what you could call a standard sized refrigerator. 1 ton of plastic (depending on the type) could more than fill your entire kitchen.

  4. SC says

    As I’ve always knew, global warming is far from the only ecological catastrophe attributable to greed and global capitalism, particularly American style.

  5. quixote says

    There was recently an interesting story about a young Dutch man who came up with a clever way of funneling plastic at the surface into a collection point where it could be compacted and shipped away. It was cheap and could float around in the open ocean. It wouldn’t get everything, but I thought it would be a start.

    Turns out a lot of fish and other critters attach their eggs to the floating plastic these days. Any effective plastic-collection method would lead to species crashes and even extinctions in some cases.

    We’ve screwed things up so thoroughly that even the solution causes screw-ups.

    Those who know say the only good solution is to stop dumping the plastic in the first place. And be careful about removal in the meantime. 😯

  6. khms says

    I could swear I just recently heard about this exact study – might have been local radio, I’m not sure – as finding far less plastic garbage than expected, not far more. These exact same conclusions, with a sort of “it’s still far too much” attached.

    I seem to recall they also told us that most of the garbage seemed to originate from ships (thrown overboard), not from land. Don’t know how much weight to give this statement.

  7. khms says

    I just remembered, they also told us that they reasoned that most of the garbage will, after a while, stop floating and sink, thus the smaller amounts; which means it’s all at the bottom of the ocean (that which hasn’t been eaten) where it’s even harder to remove.

  8. quixote says

    No, khms. You’re either not quite remembering it or the study was bogus. Every time they look, they find more plastic. Ships do dump vast quantities, but most of it is from land. And as for plastic sinking, have you ever seen plastic sink? It would do that only if something hardshelled attached and grew on it, and grew big enough to make it sink. Otherwise, it would have to degrade first, and the whole point with plastic is that it takes hundred(s) of years to do that.

  9. wereatheist says

    269,000 tons on the whole ocean? That’s almost one kilogram per square kilometer. I’m impressed!
    No, really, compared to overfishing, ocean acidification, temperature changes due to AGW, and so on, this is of minor concern. If at all.

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