171 trillion pieces of plastic trash now clog the world’s oceans

How much plastic is floating in the world’s oceans? By the latest estimate, more than 170 trillion pieces.

According to new analysis from the 5 Gyres Institute, a global nonprofit targeting plastic waste, that’s approximately 2 million tonnes – or about twice the weight of the Titanic.

Plastic pollution is having a devastating effect on marine life, and by 2040 could outweigh fish in the ocean.

The human body is also vulnerable to these excessive amounts of plastic, including of teeny fragments called microplastics that are less than 5mm in length. Studies have found that people are ingesting plastics through food and drinks, and that they can penetrate the skin and be inhaled.

A 2022 OECD report found that production of plastic has doubled worldwide in the last 20 years, with only 9 per cent successfully recycled.

As countries try to get a handle on the plastic crisis, there is a critical need for usable data to find out what prevention tactics will be effective.

The new study, published on Wednesday in the journal Plos One, analysed ocean plastic trends from 1979 to 2019 using previously gathered and new data.

Almost 12,000 new samples, gathered by using extremely fine mesh nets on the surface of ocean waters worldwide, were extrapolated to achieve an estimate for the ocean at large.

Among the other remarkable findings is that many plastic pieces have ended up in the ocean over the last two decades, with a similar trend taking place on beaches.

Without immediate action, the rate of plastic entering aquatic environments is expected to increase approximately 2.6-fold from 2016 to 2040, the researchers found.

“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,” said Dr Marcus Eriksen, Co-Founder of The 5 Gyres Institute.

“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.”