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Ocean plastic pollution has become a global crisis

Ocean plastics pollution is a dire environmental crisis, with millions of tonnes of plastic waste annually entering our oceans via rivers, wind, and direct inputs from activities such as shipping and fishing. Consequently, this relentless influx poses a substantial threat to the ocean ecosystem, the full consequences of which remain largely unknown.

Prof Annika Jahnke, an environmental chemist at UFZ and coordinator of the MICRO-FATE project, highlights the gravity of this situation. She states, “Plastics in the ocean are a serious problem… It remains there. It is still difficult to assess the consequences for the ocean ecosystem.”

The quest begins

To grasp the spread and effects of ocean plastics, Jahnke’s team launched a 2019 research voyage on the German vessel “Sonne.”

Subsequently, over five weeks, they traversed the North Pacific Ocean, taking water surface samples between Vancouver, Canada, and Singapore.

The expedition aimed to tackle key questions about ocean plastics. It sought to understand their distribution and identify the most impacted areas. Additionally, it analyzed the characteristics of plastics, comparing those near their sources to those found in the open ocean.

Sailing by numbers

The team’s approach to selecting sampling stations was informed by a prediction model from the University of Hawaii, which estimates plastic concentration in marine areas.

Accordingly, the researchers chose locations with varying predicted plastic loads to explore. This approach enabled the study of both the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and lesser-known open ocean areas. Notably, samples were taken from the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a marine reserve northwest of Hawaii.

Uncovering a global challenge

To measure plastic quantities, the team used visual surveys and neuston net samplings. They visually counted debris from the “Sonne” and used nets for larger items and microplastics. Robby Rynek, the study’s lead author, explained that these plastics were then sorted, counted, and analyzed to assess their weathering.

Their research uncovered a troubling truth: plastics saturate both known accumulation zones and the broader ocean. This includes even distant protected regions.

Contrary to expectations, high microplastic levels were found even where lower concentrations were predicted. This suggests a widespread distribution impacting the entire marine ecosystem.

Consequently, Rynek’s observations highlight a critical challenge in addressing ocean plastics: “The items do not in any way form a carpet of plastic…Most plastics are small fragments that escape nets.” This underscores the complexity of removing plastics from the ocean and the importance of preventing plastic pollution at the source.

A Course for Change: The Global Plastics Treaty

In response to the global plastic crisis, UN member states are working towards a legally binding global Plastics Treaty aimed at halting oceanic plastic pollution.

Following this, Dr. Melanie Bergmann, co-author and member of the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, calls for cutting plastic production, promoting reuse, and simplifying plastics’ chemistry for safer reuse and better recycling.

The insights from the MICRO-FATE expedition underscore the urgent need for comprehensive global action against plastic pollution. Consequently, as the scientific community continues to unveil the scale of the problem, it becomes increasingly clear that solving the issue of ocean plastics will require concerted efforts across nations, industries, and individuals to rethink our relationship with plastic and prioritize the health of our oceans.

The full study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.


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