Plastic Particles More Prevalent Than Previously Thought

For decades, oceanographers have collected water samples from the surface of the ocean in order to record how much plastic debris currently litters the waters.

But according to a new study published in April’s edition of Geophysical Research Letters, those years of data may be terribly off base due to miscalculation. The study asserts that surface collection alone is insufficient because high winds have a tremendous impact on the buoyancy of the plastic debris.

In a voyage in 2010 in the North Atlantic, the research team began collecting samples at the surface as well as additional depths as far as 100 feet. At each interval, plastic particles were present. According to new numbers, earlier plastic content tests could be underestimated by anywhere from 2.5 to 27 times.

“We’re just tapping the potential of this new research but there is definitely a lot more plastic particle pollution out there than we thought and we need to study this more,” said co-author of the paper Dylan Meyer, a 2012 graduate from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The plastic particles create a myriad of potential problems to the ocean’s ecosystem. Stunting the growth of marine fauna by attaching itself to seaweeds, being ingested by fish and being passed up the food chain can lead to failure of internal organs or decreased growth. On a smaller level, the particles also become a great mode of transportation for microbes to travel from one area to another and invading nonnative areas.

“Ocean plastics haven’t been well studied. It is a pollutant that no one has taken the time and effort into quantifying how much plastic is in the ocean or studied its effects on the ecosystems,” Meyer said. “There are definitely environmental impacts that can be seen that are only going to be worsened.”