You Can't Just "Clean Up" the Plastic in the Ocean. Here's Why.

Since the early 1950s, there has been an estimated 8.3 billion tons — and counting — of plastic produced on the planet, according to a 2017 study published in the Science Advances journal. The United Nations Environment Program reports that roughly 60% of that lump sum has made its way to landfills or the ocean. Each year, an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastics end up in the ocean, according to the advocacy group Ocean Conservancy. Some calculations predict that there could be more plastic by weight in the ocean than fish by 2050.

The situation is so dire that the ocean is already home to five notable trash vortexes, more commonly known as “garbage patches”: the North Atlantic Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre, the South Pacific Gyre, the Indian Ocean Gyre, and the North Pacific Gyre. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located in the North Pacific Gyre between California and Hawaii, is the most notorious as it is the largest of the five, with an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of trash. For measure, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is three times the size of France and weighs as much as 43,000 cars. And, according to experts, it is growing “exponentially.”

The fundamental issue with plastic is that it’s largely not biodegradable. This means it cannot be broken down into reusable compounds. Instead, it degrades over time into smaller particles also known as microplastics, which are defined as pieces that are five millimeters in length or less, according to the National Ocean Service. While these tiny particles aren’t floating at the top of the ocean, they pose a threat: Aside from contaminating the waters, plastic in the ocean injures and kills marine animals — collectively, it has impacted at least 800 species worldwide. Humans are impacted as well, as microplastics make their way into our food through seafood, water, and sea salt. Unfortunately, little is known about the scale of the problem since research is in its preliminary stages.

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