Fate of ocean plastic remains a mystery

Surveys find less marine microplastic than expected.
More than 5 trillion plastic pieces, with a combined mass of more than 250,000 tonnes, are floating in the ocean, researchers reported.

This estimate may seem shockingly high — but it is still much lower than expected, amounting to less than 1% of the annual global production of plastic.

A team led by Marcus Eriksen, research director at the Five Gyres Institute in Los Angeles, California, took samples with fine-mesh nets and visually counted pieces of trash on 24 expeditions through all five subtropical gyres, areas of rotating ocean currents where plastic collects. The team combined its observations with those from other ocean-sampling efforts, and then fed the data into a model of ocean-plastic distribution to calculate the estimate.

A recent study concluded that the global ocean contains between 7,000 and 35,000 tonnes of floating splastic.

Eriksen’s team found that microplastic accounted for a small proportion of the estimated mass. Pieces larger than 200 millimetres across accounted for 75% of the total mass of plastic surveyed.

So where is all the microplastic?
This has baffled the field for a decade, says Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at Plymouth University, UK, who coined the term ‘microplastic’ and suggested that plastic was breaking down into pieces so small that they slip through sampling nets.
Others have proposed that the plastic is being washed ashore, that small particles are being fouled by bacteria and grime until they sink to the sea floor or that they are being eaten and incorporated into animal tissue and faeces.

Some researchers have looked for plastic in remote places such as Arctic ice and the deep sea floor. But as of now no substantial concentrations of microplastic have been found.

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