What is the distribution of plastic in the ocean? Study reveals even greater contamination than suspected

What is the distribution of plastic in the ocean? What areas are particularly affected? On the contrary, are there safe areas? The team led by Professor Annika Jahnke, an environmental chemist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ), investigated these questions, which are thornier than they seem.

During a five-week expedition aboard the German research vessel “Sonne” in 2019, researchers collected samples of surface water in the North Pacific Ocean, between Vancouver, Canada, and Singapore.

Based on a predictive model (SCUD) that calculates the amount of plastic likely to be present in a given marine area, they chose to carry out their sampling at both stations located in “areas that have already been the subject of extensive research, such as the great Pacific Garbage Vortexbut also at the level of “high sea areas that had been practically unexplored”Annika Jahnke highlights in a press release.

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High levels of plastic… in a protected marine reserve!

The team used two different methods to determine the amount of plastic in surface water. The first consisted of counting the plastic objects visible to the naked eye during the ship’s voyages before describing their shape and size. The second consisted of raising fine mesh nets (0.3 mm) to the surface to collect particles, then classify them by size and analyze them chemically.

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According to their study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology (February 2024), the largest amounts of plastic waste and microplastics were found in the North Pacific garbage vortex. Most surprisingly, however, pollution levels were found to be similar within a marine reserve in northwest Hawaii, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, although it is considered relatively preserved from human impact.

“We did not expect this. According to the calculations of the prediction model, there should be much less plastic in this area.” asks Robby Rynek from UFZ, first author of the study (press release). “In fact, we found plastics at all of our sampling stations. No sample was plastic-free.”summarizes Annika Jahnke.

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Clean plastic from the oceans…

Also, when it comes to the Pacific garbage vortex, “the objects in no case form a plastic carpet that densely covers the entire surface”underlines for her part Dr. Melanie Bergmann, from the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), co-author of the study.

“This point is important when thinking about plastic removal technologies, which would need to cover large areas in order to collect significant quantities”She continues. “Most plastics are small fragments that escape nets or can only be collected with considerable animal bycatch.” The authors seem to be referring here to projects such as The Ocean Cleanup or The Sea Cleaners aimed at “collect plastic waste in the sea”.

The latter had mentioned other scientific works to justify the relevance of their actions (Onink, V., et al., About. Latvian Res., 2021; Kaandorp, M. et al., Nature Geoscience2023): “These studies and models agree that more than half of macroplastics (large excerpts, editor’s note) that float to the ocean, return to the beaches or remain in the coastal zone for several cycles. By collecting them at this precise time and place, before it sinks or moves out to sea, we limit the production of microparticles that are too complex to collect. (The Sea Cleaners).

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…and reduce plastic at source

Either way, with plastics distributed much more widely than expected, the entire ocean ecosystem is at risk, the authors of the new study warn. Therefore, they demand that the global dumping of plastics into the oceans be stopped. “as quickly as possible”.

This year, UN member states intend to adopt a legally binding global plastics treaty to end this pollution. The main challenges are to avoid unnecessary plastic, promote reuse systems, but also simplify and improve the chemical composition of products, to ensure safe reuse and higher recycling rates.

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