Environment
Peter Bennett/Getty Images

Plastic debris contaminates 88 percent of ocean’s surface, report says

Researchers find that plastic fragments pollute all five oceans, posing great danger to marine life

Researchers studying the presence of plastic in the world’s oceans found plastic debris in 88 percent of samples taken from the ocean's surfaces at hundreds of sites around the globe, according to a new report published Monday.

Aggressive consumption and subsequent disposal of plastics since the 1950s has led to a visible accumulation of the nonbiodegradable material in the world’s oceans. The plastic products reach remote areas, including the open ocean, via storm runoff and littering.

“Ocean currents carry plastic objects, which split into smaller and smaller fragments due to solar radiation,” Andres Cozar, a researcher from the University of Cadiz in Spain, said in a release. “Those little pieces of plastics, known as microplastics, can last hundreds of years and were detected in 88 percent of the ocean surface sampled.”

Researchers at the University of Cadiz conducted the study, and the results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Ocean samples were taken as part of the Malaspina Circumnavigation Expedition from 2010 to 2011, aimed at studying the impact of global change — including population, globalization, climate and other factors — on the marine ecosystem.

Plastic pollution on the surface of the ocean is made up mainly of particles smaller than 1 cm (0.39 inch) in diameter and microplastics, originating from bigger pieces of plastic that have broken down or commonly used cosmetics that contain microbeads.

“These microplastics have an influence on the behavior and the food chain of marine organisms,” Cozar said. “The tiny plastic fragments often accumulate contaminants that, if swallowed, can be passed to organisms during digestion —without forgetting the gastrointestinal obstructions, which are another of the most common problems with this type of waste.”

Researchers had been aware of the massive plastic accumulation in the northern Pacific Ocean, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, estimated to be larger than Texas.

But this study showed that plastics have accumulated in all five ocean gyres, or areas where currents converge.

“Our results show that the high concentration of plastic is not a unique feature of the North Pacific but occurs in each of the subtropical gyres,” Carlos Duarte, coordinator of the Malaspina expedition, said in a release. 

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter