8 Million Tons Of Plastic Clutter Our Seas | KUOW News and Information

8 Million Tons Of Plastic Clutter Our Seas

Feb 12, 2015
Originally published on February 20, 2015 12:13 pm

Plastic is one of those inventions that transformed the world. It's light, durable and you can make lots of things with it.

But it's also transforming Earth's oceans — and not in a good way. A lot of plastic ends up there. Scientists are just now getting a handle on how much plastic has gone to sea.

Up until now, estimates have been very rough. It's hard to measure waste in the oceans; after all, salt water covers 70 percent of the planet.

But another way to figure out what's out there is to measure how much debris is coming off the land.

That's what engineer Jenna Jambeck, at the University of Georgia, decided to do (publishing her findings in this week's issue of the journal Science). Jambeck was a good fit for the job.

"My thing is really waste management," she says. "That's what I really fell in love with."

And "love" would not be an overstatement: "I take photos of the way people manage waste all over the world," she says. "I take pictures of garbage cans. I met my husband at the landfill. ... At least he understands me."

Jambeck undertook a unique project — to study waste streams in 192 countries. She gathered data on how much waste each country generates and how each nation deals with its trash. She calculated how much is plastic and how much exists within 30 miles of an ocean. Researchers also inventoried what was on beaches.

And here's what she found:

"In 2010 there were 8 million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean globally," she says. That's plastic bottles, candy wrappers, laundry baskets, synthetic rope, and syringes. According to Jambeck's calculations, that's like putting five bags of plastic trash on every foot of coastline in the world.

Jambeck calls her calculation "an order of magnitude" estimate — not exact, but in the ballpark. (She and her team have also developed an app, called Marine Debris Tracker, that lets anybody report the ocean litter they spot, anywhere in the world.)

And how did all that plastic get to the sea?

"If you have waste that's free in the environment, on the land mass that's in close proximity to the ocean," she explains, "it's going to be blown or be washed into the ocean. It also could be washed into rivers and then flow from there."

Americans generate a lot of plastic trash. But Jambeck found that fast-growing economies like China and Indonesia are bigger sources of ocean plastic. They don't have as much recycling or as many managed landfills as the U.S. does. And they have long coastlines.

This plastic tsunami worries the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group that funded Jambeck's research. Nick Mallos runs the Conservancy's Trash Free Seas program. He says plastic affects more than 600 species of marine animals.

"That ranges," he says, "from mussels (both farmed and wild) to fin fish and sea turtles, all the way up to fin whales — through risks of entanglement and also through ingestion."

Mallos notes that plastic can absorb chemicals in the ocean — means toxic chemicals could get passed on to fish that eat the plastic. "There are a lot of questions about what that means for the food chain," he says.

Biodegradable materials could replace some of that plastic wrapping and containers, Mallos says. And recycling tends to increase as economies flourish.

In the meantime, there are always landfills — certainly not ideal, but you might find true love at one.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Plastic transformed the world. It's light, durable and lots of stuff can be made out of it. But it's also transforming the oceans, and not in a good way. A lot of plastic ends up there. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, scientists are just now getting a handle on how much plastic has gone to sea.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Scientists have been trying to figure out how much plastic is in the ocean. The best they can do is make a rough estimate. After all, the oceans cover 70 percent of the planet. But another way to figure out what's out there is to measure what's coming off the land. And that's what engineer Jenna Jambeck at the University of Georgia decided to do. She was a good fit for the job.

JENNA JAMBECK: My thing is really waste management. That's what I fell in love with.

JOYCE: And love would not be an overstatement.

JAMBECK: I take photos of the way people manage waste all over the world, take pictures of garbage cans - yeah. And I met my husband at the landfill. At least he understands me.

JOYCE: Jambeck undertook a unique project - to study waste streams in 192 countries. She gathered data on how much waste each country generates and how it's managed. She calculated how much is plastic and how much exists within 30 miles of an ocean. Researchers inventoried what was on the beaches, and here's what she found.

JAMBECK: In 2010 there was 8 million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean, globally.

JOYCE: Plastic bottles, candy wrappers, laundry baskets, syringes. Jambeck calculates that's like putting five bags of plastic trash on every foot of coastline in the world. She published her findings in the Journal of Science. She calls it an order of magnitude estimate - not exact, but in the ballpark. As to how the plastic gets there?

JAMBECK: So if you have waste that's free in the environment on the landmass that's in a close proximity to the ocean, it's going to be blown or be washed into the ocean. It also could be washed into rivers and then flow from there.

JOYCE: Americans generate a lot of plastic trash, but Jambeck found that fast-growing economies like China and Indonesia are bigger sources of ocean plastic. They don't have as much recycling or managed landfills as the U.S., and they have long coastlines. This plastic tsunami worries the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group that funded Jambeck's research. Nick Mallos runs the Conservancy's Trash Free Seas program. He says plastic affects over 600 species of marine animals.

NICK MALLOS: That ranges from mussels - both farmed and wild - to fin fish, to sea turtles, all the way up to fin whales, both through risks of entanglement but also through ingestion.

JOYCE: Mallos notes that plastic can absorb chemicals in the ocean which could get passed on to fish that eat the plastic.

MALLOS: There are a lot of questions about what that means for the future of the food chain.

JOYCE: Mallos says there are biodegradable materials that can replace plastic wrapping or containers, and recycling tends to increase as economies flourish. In the meantime, there are landfills - not ideal, but you might find true love at one. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.