A Sea of Plastic

New study estimates there are 270,000 tons of plastic on the ocean's surface

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An Indonesian beach exemplifies the ocean’s growing trash problem. Photo: Childs

According to new research, there are an estimated 270,000 tons of plastic floating on the ocean’s surface, which are most likely broken into more than 5 trillion pieces. In comparison, in 2013, it was estimated that around three tons of trash were collected in beach cleanups in San Diego County. Long story short, there’s a lot of floating plastic in our oceans.

This latest study was published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. To come up with their findings, the author of the study, Markus Eriksen, along with other researchers, dragged fine mesh nets across various spots along the ocean’s surface and used a team of spotters on boats to count trash. From there, they used an algorithm to estimate floating plastic in other parts of the ocean before performing the calculations that forged the base of the study. The study did not account for plastic that was submerged.

While coming up with an exact number for the amount of floating trash is nearly impossible, the results of this latest study mirror similar findings from a team of Spanish researchers who used a different form of methodology, which helped to validate the recent findings.

“It’s encouraging that two different approaches came up with such similar answers, given how difficult it is to measure plastic in the ocean,” said Kara Lavender Law of the Sea Education Association.

Kyle Thiermann, professional surfer and environmental advocate, outlined the perils of the ocean’s growing trash problem. “It’s definitely an issue, but there are a lot of things that every one of us can do to help. On a personal level, I’d encourage everyone to count how many plastic coffee cups and water bottles they go through every week. From there, I think a lot of people will be surprised and will want to switch to just using their own mug. The second thing that people can do is to support the organizations that are trying to solve these big environmental problems. It’s not about being the ‘no-impact guy.’ It’s about building habits that help protect the places we play.”