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Oceans Of Plastic

December 11, 2014

This stuff is ashore so it doesn’t even count.


Dr. Evil, who deals only in millions, would be shocked by this:

A major new study of the world’s oceans has reached a shocking conclusion: Thanks to humans, there are now over 5 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing more than 250,000 tons, floating in water around the world.

With a global population of about 7.2 billion, that’s nearly 700 pieces per person.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One by Marcus Eriksen of the Five Gyres Institute in Los Angeles and a large group of colleagues, is based on data from 24 separate ocean expeditions, conducted between 2007 and 2013, to sample plastic pollution. Plastic was either observed from boats, or hauled up from the ocean by nets, in 1,571 locations. The data were then used to run an ocean model to simulate the amount and distribution of plastic debris.

That’s a nearly incomprehensible amount of plastic. What’s worse, though, is that there is probably a lot more than that:

The authors stress that they suspect their estimate is “highly conservative” — there could be a lot more plastic out there than that. For as they note, there is also a “potentially massive amount of plastic present on shorelines, on the seabed, suspended in the water column, and within organisms.”

In particular, the authors cite a figure from the trade group Plastics Europe, which suggests that 288 million tons of plastic are produced annually. Compared to a figure like this, the 250,ooo tons described in this study represent “only 0.1 % of the world annual production” — again underscoring that the numbers reported in the study, large though they are, are probably a low end estimate.

The American Chemistry Council responded to the study by stressing the importance of recycling. Okay, hard to argue. But with these sorts of stories about humanity laying waste (literally) to the planet, I keep coming back to the same thing. Consumables need to be priced differently, to reflect their environmental impact and cost. Adopting that approach–which is the only thing that radically changes industry and consumer behavior–is really the only hope of limiting human impact on the planet.

In the meantime, I will put plastic alongside the internal combustion engine as a two-edged human invention that created wealth and progress while simultaneously destroying natural capital.

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