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Unprecedented increase in global ocean plastic pollution since 2005

According to an increasing number of studies, plastic pollution is one of the main threats the world’s oceans and their ecosystems are currently facing. While previous research has focused primarily on Northern Hemisphere oceans and areas near the most industrialized nations, a recent global dataset of ocean plastic pollution between 1979 and 2019 has revealed a fast and unprecedented worldwide increase in ocean plastics since 2005. Better understanding plastic accumulation in oceans across the globe could provide a critical baseline to help address this major form of pollution.

The experts examined data on ocean-surface-level plastic pollution collected between 1979 and 2019 from 11,777 stations across six marine regions (North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, Mediterranean, and Indian). While a relative lack of data from 1979 to 1990 prevented reliable trend analysis during this period, and between 1990 and 2004 plastic levels showed fluctuations with no precise trend, from 2005 to 2019 ocean plastic abundance and distribution significantly and rapidly increased worldwide, with an estimated 85 to 358 trillion plastic particles, weighing between 1.1 and 4.9 million tons, polluting the world’s oceans in 2019. 

Although these findings are biased towards trends in the North Pacific and North Atlantic oceans, where the majority of data was collected, the rapid increase in plastic pollution since 2005 suggests a sustained, global growth of plastic production, as well as possible changes in waste generation and management. According to the researchers, without widespread policy changes, the rate at which plastics enter our oceans may increase by 2.6 times by 2040. To prevent this, a legally binding international policy intervention to minimize the ecological, economic, and social damage of marine plastic pollution is urgently needed.

“We’ve found an alarming trend of exponential growth of microplastics in the global ocean since the millennium, reaching over 170 trillion plastic particles. This is a stark warning that we must act now at a global scale. We need a strong, legally binding UN Global Treaty on plastic pollution that stops the problem at the source,” concluded lead author Marcus Eriksen, the research director and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute.

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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