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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Growing bigger and faster

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic

What happens to fishing gears that get lost at sea and other plastic debris that swirl in the Pacific Ocean? Some sink, others stay on surface, enter the oceanic gyres and form a massive floating island that is “now three times the size of France,” according to international team of scientists affiliated with The Netherlands-based Ocean Cleanup Foundation.

After a three-year mapping work, the international team of scientists found that 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 80,000 metric tons are currently afloat in an area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, posing threat to marine life. Located halfway between Hawaii and California, the garbage mass was first discovered in 1997. The new analysis reveals that garbage accumulation, floating inside an area of 1.6 million km, is 16 times more than previously estimated. And it is rapidly getting worse, increasing exponentially and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters.

“The relatively high concentrations of ocean plastic occurring in this region are mostly attributed to a connection to substantial ocean plastic sources in Asia through the Kuroshio Extension current system as well as intensified fishing activity in the Pacific Ocean,” states the team’s report titled “Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Rapidly Accumulating Plastic,” published March 22 in the Scientific Reports.

Researchers said the plastic collected during the study had specific characteristics such as small surface-to-volume ratio, indicating that only certain types of debris have the capacity to persist and accumulate at the surface of the garbage patch. Analysis found that over three-quarters of the garbage mass was carried by debris larger than 5 cm and at least 46 percent comprised fishing nets. Microplastics accounted for 8 percent of the total mass but 94 percent of the estimated 1.8 trillion pieces floating in the area.

While acknowledging the breakthrough in the introduction of synthetic fibers in fishing and aquaculture gear, the foundation’s scientists noted that its persistence in the marine environment, accidental and deliberate gear losses became a major source of ocean plastic pollution. Of particular concerns to the scientists are lost or discarded fishing nets, known as ghostnets, which they noted yield direct negative impacts on the economy and marine habitats worldwide.

“Around 60 percent of the plastic produced is less dense than seawaters. When introduced into the marine environment,” said the scientists led by Dr. Laurent Lebreton, “buoyant plastic can be transported by surface currents and winds, recaptured by coastlines, degraded into smaller pieces by the action of sun, temperature variations, waves and marine life, or lose buoyancy and sink. A portion of these buoyant plastics however, is transported offshore and enters oceanic gyres.”

“This study is a first attempt at introducing a time-coherent dynamic model of floating debris accumulation in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” the report says. “This allowed us to compare our findings with historical observations (1970s to present) and assess the long-term evolution of ocean plastic concentrations within and around the GPGP.” Photos courtesy of Ocean Cleanup Foundation.

The scientists noted that global annual plastic consumption has now reached over 320 million tons with more plastic produced in the last decade than ever before. A significant amount of the produced plastic material is rapidly converted into waste after serving an ephemeral purpose. A small portion may be recycled or incinerated, but the majority will either be discarded into landfill or littered into natural environments, including the world’s oceans.

A previous study conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Georgia concluded that humans have created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics since large-scale production of the synthetic materials began in the early 1950s, and 6.3 billion tons of the production had already become waste buried in landfills or polluting the natural environment.

The study published in the journal Science Advances in July last year found that only 9 percent of the produced plastic was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.

“If current trends continue, roughly 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050. Twelve billion metric tons is about 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building,” the study said.

The scientists compiled production statistics for resins, fibers and additives from a variety of industry sources and synthesized them according to type and consuming sector.

Main points of the research include:

  • About 91 percent of plastic isn't recycled, and only 12 percent has been incinerated

  • 79 percent of plastic went into landfills or the natural environment

  • Plastics’ largest market is packaging, an application whose growth was accelerated by a global shift from reusable to single-use containers.

  • Most of the monomers used to make plastics, such as ethylene and propylene, are derived from fossil hydrocarbons. None of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable.

  • In 2015, the world created 448 million tons of plastic — more than twice as much as made in 1998.

  • If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 metric tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050.

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