Around 8 million tons of plastic bottles, bags, toys and other plastic rubbish ends up in the world’s oceans each year, according to scientists. Because of the difficulties in working out the exact amount, since much of it may have sunk, the scientists said the true figure could be as much as 12.7 million tons polluting the ocean each year. Dr. Jenna Jambeck, from the University of Georgia in the US, said we are becoming “overwhelmed by our waste.”
Carried by sea currents, this waste congregates into five giant “garbage islands” that swirl around the world’s major ocean gyres. Now, NASA has created a visual representation to demonstrate the extent to which humanity is destroying the world’s oceans with waste.
NASA created the time-lapse using data from floating, scientific buoys that have been distributed in the oceans for the last 35 years. “If we let all of the buoys go at the same time, we can observe buoy migration patterns,” said Greg Shirah from NASA’s Scientific Visualisation Studio. “The number of buoys decreases because some buoys don’t last as long as others.” The buoys on the map are represented by the white dots. The buoys migrate to five known gyres, the large system of rotating ocean currents. These are located in the Indian Ocean and in the north and south of the Pacific and the north and south Atlantic. “We can also see this in a computational model of ocean currents called ECCO-2,” said Shirah. “We release particles evenly around the world and let the modelled currents carry the particles. The particles from the model also migrate to the garbage patches. Even though the retimed buoys and modelled particles did not react to currents at the same times, the fact that the data tend to accumulate in the same regions show how robust the result is.”
The team also warned that this “ocean of plastic” can harm sea life. Turtles can mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them. The bags then block their stomachs, which causes them to starve to death. Sea birds also often mistake floating plastic for food; over 90 per cent of fulmars found dead around the North Sea have plastic in their stomachs. It is also feared that it could harm our health to eat fish that have consumed plastic.
Co-author Roland Geyer, associate professor of industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said, “Large-scale removal of plastic marine debris is not going to be cost-effective and quite likely simply unfeasible. This means 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.”
Frank Davis, director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in the US, said, “The numbers are staggering but the problem is not insurmountable.”