A new study has found that plastic pollution in the sea has reached unprecedented levels over the past fifteen years, with an estimated 170 trillion pieces of plastic on the ocean surface.
Without intervention, the research shows that the rate of plastic entering the oceans could increase dramatically in the coming decades.
The study was published in the open-access journal PLOS One and involved researchers taking plastic samples from over 11,000 places around the world between 1979 and 2019. Researchers found no trends until 1990, then a fluctuation between 1990 and 2005. After that, the samples skyrocketed.
“We see a really rapid increase since 2005 because there is a rapid increase in (plastic) production and also a limited number of policies that are controlling the release of plastic into the ocean,” said contributing author Lisa Erdle.
The sources of plastic pieces in the ocean are many. Fishing gear like buoys and nets often end up in the middle of the sea, while things like single-use plastics, clothing and car tyres pollute nearer to the coast. Eventually, they break down into microplastics, which Erdle described as “confetti on the surface of the ocean”.
Plastic pollution in the ocean can harm and kill animals in various ways. Animals can become entangled in plastic debris, such as fishing nets or plastic bags, leading to injury, suffocation, or drowning.
Marine animals can also ingest plastic pieces, mistaking them for food, which can cause blockages in their digestive system, leading to starvation or death.
Recycling has done little to help the pollution problem, as just a small percentage of plastics are correctly recycled and often end up in landfills instead.
In march 2022, 175 nations agreed to develop a legally binding framework on plastic pollution by 2024.