Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Ocean Microplastics Are Drastically Underestimated, New Research Suggests

Oceans
A biologist looks at microplastics found in sea species at the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research near Athens, Greece on Nov. 26, 2019. LOUISA GOULIAMAKI / AFP via Getty Images

New research suggests there may be far more microplastics in the ocean than initially estimated.


Microplastics, which breakdown into miniscule pieces of plastic are notoriously tricky to catch. Their small size allows them to get buried in ocean sediment and to escape through nets.

Now, a team of researchers, led by scientists at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in England, used a finer net to get a more accurate picture of the amount of plastic in the ocean. Their research suggests the seas may be holding as many as 125 trillion microplastic particles, according to the study published in the journal Environmental Pollution, as Newsweek reported.

Microplastics are usually defined as tiny pieces of plastic that measure less than five millimeters across. However, despite the abundance of microplastics in the ocean, scientists have actually had a difficult time quantifying and classifying them. Usually, researchers gather samples with nets with a mesh size of 333 micrometers, or 0.333 millimeters, but these do not account for smaller pieces of plastic debris, as Newsweek reported.

The Plymouth Marine Laboratory scientists, along with researchers from the University of Exeter, used nets with a mesh size of 100 micrometers, or 0.1 millimeters, to get a more accurate picture of the microplastics swirling around coastal waters, according to a University of Exeter press release.

"It is quite well known what impact larger pieces of plastic have on marine animals, like turtles eating plastic bags mistaking them for jellyfish, but we wanted to know if microplastics are a problem to smaller marine animals like mussels or zooplankton," said Pennie Lindeque, lead author of the study from Plymouth Marine Laboratory, to Newsweek.

"However, first we needed an accurate picture of how many small microplastics there are in the sea, and what sort of plastic they are. We are interested in really quite small microplastics—around 100 micrometers in size, similar to the width of a human hair—and suspected that the standard sampling methods using a net with pores about 333 micrometers in size, wouldn't give an accurate picture."

The researchers compared the efficacy of a 100 micrometer net to what's collected by a 333 micrometer net and a 500 micrometer net. They found that their net collected 2.5 times as much microplastics as the 333 micrometer mesh net. It collected 10 times more microplastic than a 500 micrometer net, according to the study.

The scientists then extrapolated that data to determine that there are roughly 3,700 pieces of microplastic in one cubic meter. That means that previous global estimates of 5 to 50 trillion particles of microplastics are severely low. The true number, according to the data in the study, is somewhere between 12.5 and 125 trillion particles.

"There is often a mismatch between the number and type of microplastics used in experimental studies and those found in the natural environment," said Rachel Coppock, Marine Ecologist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and a co-author on the study, in a statement. "This study confirms that microplastic concentration increases with decreasing size and also provides a framework for determining microplastic concentrations in exposure studies, particularly with animals such as zooplankton that eat micron-sized food."

The researchers focused on coastal water since that is where microplastics are likely to have the greatest impact on marine life. They sampled the water on both sides of the Atlantic, choosing a spot off the coast of Maine and another in the English Channel, according to Newsweek.

"I was surprised at the extent that we had been underestimating the microplastic abundance in the marine environment; I was also surprised how consistent the results were on both sides of the North Atlantic, the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and the southwest coast of the UK," Lindeque told Newsweek.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Refrigerated trucks function as temporary morgues at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal on May 06, 2020 in New York City. As of July, the states where COVID-19 cases are rising are mostly in the West and South. Justin Heiman / Getty Images

The official number of people in the U.S. who have lost their lives to the new coronavirus has now passed 130,000, according to tallies from The New York Times, Reuters and Johns Hopkins University.

Read More Show Less
A man walks on pink snow at the Presena glacier near Pellizzano, Italy on July 4, 2020. MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images

In a troubling sign for the future of the Italian Alps, the snow and ice in a glacier is turning pink due to the growth of snow-melting algae, according to scientists studying the pink ice phenomenon, as CNN reported.

Read More Show Less
Climate activist Greta Thunberg discusses EU plans to tackle the climate emergency with Parliament's environment committee on March 4, 2020. CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020 – Source: EP

By Abdullahi Alim

The 2008 financial crisis spurred a number of youth movements including Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. A decade later, this anger resurfaced in a new wave of global protests, from Hong Kong to Beirut to London, only this time driven by the children of the 2008 financial crisis.

Read More Show Less
A climate activist holds a victory sign in Washington, DC. after President Obama announced that he would reject the Keystone XL Pipeline proposal on November 6, 2015. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

The Supreme Court late Monday upheld a federal judge's rejection of a crucial permit for Keystone XL and blocked the Trump administration's attempt to greenlight construction of the 1,200-mile crude oil project, the third such blow to the fossil fuel industry in a day—coming just hours after the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the court-ordered shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Read More Show Less
A forest fire in Yakutsk in eastern Siberia on June 2, 2020. Yevgeny Sofroneyev / TASS via Getty Images

Once thought too frozen to burn, Siberia is now on fire and spewing carbon after enduring its warmest June ever, according to CNN.

Read More Show Less
The Colima fir tree's distribution has been reduced to the area surrounding the Nevado de Colima volcano. Agustín del Castillo

By Agustín del Castillo

For 20 years, the Colima fir tree (Abies colimensis) has been at the heart of many disputes to conserve the temperate forests of southern Jalisco, a state in central Mexico. Today, the future of this tree rests upon whether the area's avocado crops will advance further and whether neighboring communities will unite to protect it.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Independent environmental certifications offer a better indicator of a product's eco credentials, including labor conditions for workers involved in production. Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Jeanette Cwienk

This summer's high street fashions have more in common than styles and colors. From the pink puff-sleeved dream going for just €19.99 ($22.52) at H&M, to Zara's elegant €12.95 ($14.63) halter-neck dress, clothing stores are alive with cheap organic cotton.

"Sustainable" collections with aspirational own-brand names like C&A's "Wear the change," Zara's "join life" or H&M's "CONSCIOUS" are offering cheap fashion and a clean environmental conscience. Such, at least, is the message. But is it really that simple?

Read More Show Less