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Insights/Opinion

Plastic Smog: Microplastics Invade Our Oceans

The idea that there are “patches” of trash in the oceans is a myth created 15 years ago that should be abandoned in favor of “plastic smog,” like massive clouds of microplastics that emanate out of the five subtropical gyres. My recent publication in the journal Plos One, estimates 269,000 tons of plastic from 5.25 trillion particles, but more alarming than that is it’s mostly microplastic (>92 percent in our study) and most of the plastic in the ocean is likely not on the sea surface.

What 5.25 trillion particles tells us is that emission controls are the only viable solution. Photo credit: 5 Gyres

Recent research has shown microplastics in ice cores, across the seafloor, vertically throughout the ocean and on every beach worldwide.  The little stuff is everywhere.

If you follow the life of plastic in the oceans, as we have done for 50,000 miles since 2009, you find the large items leaving coastlines in droves, then it rapidly shreds as it migrates toward the calmer waters of the subtropical gyres where sunlight, waves and nibbling fish rip it to micro-size particles smaller than a grain of rice. Microplastic then flow through the bodies of billions of organisms, making their way out of the gyres to deeper currents, and ultimately the seafloor. That’s the end-life of plastic.

Visualize the problem as “plastic smog” much like the way you can look up and visualize clouds of air pollution over cities. It’s very similar. We solved the air pollution problem by stopping the source with better emission controls on cars and power plants. There were people that suggested sucking air pollution out of the sky, but because people could look up and see the problem they understood that only stopping the source would work. The exact same logic applies to microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Because there are only a handful of scientists that understand ocean plastic pollution, and the public largely relies on the media for information, there’s an unusual amount of attention given to ideas to suck up plastic from the sea.

What 5.25 trillion particles tells us is that emission controls are the only viable solution. And that’s where we need your help. By supporting our microbead ban, which is one of many campaigns to phase out bad plastic design, you will make a long-lasting impact on fixing the problem.

Watch here as I provide an overview of our recent study:

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