Jan 23, 2019 | Updated: 10:56 AM EST

Can You Fathom the Trash? New Study Reveals Eight Million Tons of Plastic Trash Reach the Oceans Each Year

Feb 13, 2015 06:42 PM EST


If you were to guess the amount of tonnage of trash in the sea, we bet that you'd be off by a couple of millions. That's right, millions with an "M". You may think that you can estimate the trash based on what you see at the beach, but researchers say that the calculation is a bit more complex than what the average guesser might think.

In a new study published this week in the journal Science, researchers for the first time quantified exactly how much garbage flows into the world's oceans each and every year. The bad news: in 2010 when the researchers began their study, eight million tons of plastic trash ended up in the oceans thanks to coastal countries, far outweighing current estimates of "garbage patches" floating in open waters. Even worse: without serious changes in garbage management over the next decade, the tonnage may increase tenfold putting millions more in the open oceans.

As opposed to early methods of estimating ocean debris by way of sample counts of plastic floating on the surface of oceans, the new study sought out the major sources of the plastic debris and found the top 20 offenders when it comes to consumption and pollution of ocean-bound trash. Think you know what countries made the list? Well, while it might not surprise you that some of the worst polluters come from developing nations in the far East, it might surprise you that the United States, as a large and wealth consumer, ranked 20th on the list. The others include Brazil, five African nations, Turkey and 11 other Asian countries.

"What we have done is look at the other side of the equation-what's coming out of the faucet, rather than what's already in the bathtub" coauthor of the study and oceanographer with the Sea Education Association, Kara Lavender Law says. "The size of the discrepancy is huge-20 to 2,000 times more than the range of estimates of floating debris."

"That is pretty shocking, especially when you consider that the amount going into the ocean in a single year and what we're counting in the oceans has been going up for 50 years."

And the models the researchers created reveal an even more terrifyingly trashy future, estimating that by 2025 nearly 155 million tons of plastic trash a year may reach oceans if garbage management practices do not change.

Can you fathom the trash?

Think that you know what eight million tons of plastic trash looks like? To put it into a context that everyone can understand, lead author of the study, Jenna Dambeck says that the insurmountable garbage heap is like lining up five grocery bags, filled with trash, side-by-side along every foot of coastline around the globe. And that's a whole lot of trash.

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