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Surprising Science

Research Estimates Where Plastic Waste Goes, Experts Puzzled By Results

The results of a new study estimate that 5 to 13 million tons of plastic trash end up in the ocean each year. The empirical evidence has experts wondering where most of it has ended up.

We know most plastic waste ends up in landfills. A small percentage of it gets recycled when you remember to dump the two-liter bottle in the blue bin and not the green bin. But there’s another huge portion of it that ends up floating in our oceans, just bobbing there in perpetuity. As Brad Plumer of Vox writes, there’s long been an effort to get a ballpark figure of just how much plastic gets dumped in our oceans. Finally, we’re making progress.

“A new study in Science calculates that between 5 and 13 million metric tons of plastic waste made its way from land to sea in 2010 alone. What’s more, the authors estimate the amount could quadruple by 2025 without better waste management.”

Why is this puzzling? Well, every single ocean now has “a massive swirling plastic garbage patch.” Even when considering the mass of those patches (7,000 to 35,000 tons collectively), that leaves 99% of the estimated plastic unaccounted for. 

“There should be millions of tons of plastic in the oceans. But these subtropical gyres only contained up to 35,000 tons. In particular, there seemed to be muchless plastic smaller than one millimeter in diameter than expected. So where did the rest go?”

Plumer offers some basic estimations based on various avenues of research. Maybe it’s all washing back ashore? Perhaps it’s been broken down into tiny, tiny pieces so small we can’t tell it’s there. Maybe they’re becoming fish food?

More research is needed to find an answer. Until then, the experts will scratch their heads and wonder where all our plastic has gone.

Read more at Vox.

Photo credit: alexandro900 / Shutterstock


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