Stockholm university

Growing “plastic smog” of 170 trillion particles afloat in the ocean

More than 170 trillion microplastic particles are floating in the World’s oceans, new study finds.

polluted beach
Photo: Paolo Galasso/Mostphotos

According to a new study published in the journal PloS One, there are much more microplastics in the ocean than previously thought. The new analysis builds on more than 11 000 samples of floating ocean plastics and shows a rapid increase in ocean microplastics over the past decades.

“The situation is much worse than expected. In 2014, it was estimated that there were 5 trillion plastic particles in the ocean. Now, less than ten years later, we’re up at 170 trillion,” says centre researcher Patricia Villarrubia-Gómez, who is one of the co-authors of the paper.

In the study, an international research team led by the 5 Gyres Institute has evaluated trends in ocean plastic over forty years from 1979 to 2019. They combined new samples with previously published data and created a global time series to estimate the average counts and mass of microplastics in the ocean surface layer. Understanding the occurrence and trends of plastic in the environment is foundational to assessing current and potential future risks to humans and ecosystems.

What they found is best described as a layer of plastic smog that covers the entire surface of the ocean.

From 2005 onward, they saw a rapid increase in the mass and abundance of plastic, which may reflect an exponential increase in plastic production, fragmentation of existing plastic pollution, or changes in terrestrial waste generation and management.

Unless the World starts acting on the issue right away, the rate of plastic entering aquatic environments is expected to increase approximately 2.6-fold from 2016 to 2040.

“The exponential increase in microplastics across the world’s oceans is a stark warning that we must act now at a global scale, stop focusing on cleanup and recycling, and usher in an age of corporate responsibility for the entire life of the things they make,” says lead author Marcus Eriksen from the 5 Gyres Institute.

He continues: “Cleanup is futile if we continue to produce plastic at the current rate, and we have heard about recycling for too long while the plastic industry simultaneously rejects any commitments to buy recycled material or design for recyclability. It’s time to address the plastic problem at the source.”

Read the study A growing plastic smog, now estimated to be over 170 trillion plastic particles afloat in the world's oceans – Urgent solutions required