Level of plastic waste in the ocean higher than previously thought

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Discarded toys are seen amongst trash, on a beach near the high-income Costa del Este neighbourhood in Panama City September 10, 2013. Photo by Carlos Jasso/Reuters

Discarded toys are seen amongst trash, on a beach near the high-income Costa del Este neighbourhood in Panama City September 10, 2013. Photo by Carlos Jasso/Reuters

About 8 million metric tons of plastic waste makes its way into the oceans each year, according to a study published today by a group of scientists at the UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. The number is expected to increase unless countries are able to “turn off the faucet,” Kara Lavender Law, one author of the study, said.

Researchers found that in 2010, there was more than 4.8 million metric tons of plastic waste going into the ocean every year, and the number could be as high as 12.7 million metric tons, making it an average of about 8 million metric tons, one to three times the amount previously thought.

A total of 192 countries that border the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans and Mediterranean and Black seas were examined, and results show that combined, the countries contributed 2.5 billion metric tons of solid waste, 275 million metric tons of which are plastic. Of that 275 million, about 99.5 million metric tons is on the coast with about 8 million making its way from the coast to the ocean.

The team of researchers also ranked countries: China made the top of the list of the 192 countries included in the research, with 28 percent of the total, and the U.S. was ranked number 10 in terms of plastic waste contributions annually. Canada, the country with the largest coastline in the world, was in the bottom half.

The key to fixing the problem is not by focusing on removing the plastic from the ocean, but by preventing plastic from leaving the coasts and entering the water in the first place, three of the study’s researchers — Dr. Jenna Jambeck from the University of Georgia, Dr. Kara Lavender Law from the Sea Education Association and Dr. Roland Geyer from the University of California, Santa Barbara –explained at a press briefing today.

“Large-scale removal of plastic marine debris is not going to be cost-effective and quite likely simply unfeasible,” Roland Geyer, one of the authors, said in a press release. “This means that we need to prevent plastic from entering the oceans in the first place through better waste management, more reuse and recycling, better product design and material substitution.”

For developed countries at the top of the list, mismanaged waste systems is one of the major reasons behind the large-scale contribution. With mitigation and economic incentives, countries can reduce their plastic waste contribution, which some Asian countries have already adopted. Additionally, product redesign, or using materials besides plastic, can also prevent the amount of plastic waste from entering the oceans.

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