National Geographic Daily News
Photo of a boat in the trash-filled waters of Manila Bay.

Fishermen set out amid floating garbage off the shore of Manila Bay in the Philippines on June 8, 2013.

Photograph by Erik De Castro, Reuters

Laura Parker

National Geographic

Published June 13, 2014

Consider this: The amount of global trash is expected to rise every year for the rest of the century. With no intervention, the growing garbage heap won't even peak by 2021.

Since most marine debris originates on land, that grim prognosis, say researchers at the University of Georgia, could spell disaster for the oceans, creating an environmental hazard often compared in scope with climate change.

"We estimate we're going to have millions of tons of plastic going into the ocean with, so far, unknown consequences," says Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the university, who is among a group of scientists pursuing a new phase of research on ocean trash and measuring its impact on the environment and marine life. The University of Georgia group works as part of the University of California at Santa Barbara's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

But while climate change is still mired in politics and is a target of naysayers, the trouble in the oceans is an easier issue to address because it is so visible. "The one thing this issue has going for it over climate change is that you can see the garbage," Jambeck says.

Ocean debris grabbed the international spotlight this spring during the search for the missing Malaysian jet, when multiple satellite images of floating debris repeatedly turned out to be garbage instead of pieces of the Boeing 777. (See "Plane Search Shows World's Oceans Are Full of Trash.")

Secretary of State John Kerry hopes to highlight the issue again next week by making marine trash one of the main topics at a two-day oceans conference that begins Monday. Kerry hopes to frame the challenges that lie ahead, including climate change-related ocean acidification and the threat of overfishing.

But the dilemma caused by the growing tonnage of mostly plastic debris is so complex, it has created a new interdisciplinary field of study. Scientists like Jambeck are examining a litany of new issues that range from the toxicity of plastics ingested by marine animals to the politics and economics of solid waste management in developing nations.

New Questions for an Old Problem

Seafarers have known for decades that the oceans are trash dumps, the ultimate sinkholes for all global garbage. So far, 136 species of marine animals have been found entangled in debris. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the first such discovery was made in 1944, when northern fur seals turned up trapped in rubber "collars" that were the remains of Japanese food-drop bags from the Aleutian campaign in World War II.

But scientific research into marine garbage is only a decade or so old. NOAA, for example, launched its Marine Debris Program only in 2006, after Congress passed the Marine Debris Act at the urging of Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

The defining moment of ocean debris research, says Jambeck, was when scientists discovered that ocean debris was no longer an assemblage of cloth, wood, and ceramics, but was composed almost entirely of plastic. Most of that is micro-plastic, meaning it has decayed and broken down into microscopic pieces that float in the water column. Richard Thompson, a British scientist scheduled to speak at Kerry's conference, first highlighted the problem in 2004 in a paper titled "Lost at Sea: Where Is All the Plastic?"

"Once micro-plastics entered the picture and it was being ingested by marine life, it was a whole new ballgame," Jambeck says. "That's when the alarms started going off."

Jambeck and her team's research, to be published later this year, will provide new estimates of how much garbage is produced globally every year, how much garbage comes from developing countries lacking garbage collection systems, and how much litter is produced by developed countries. All trash has the potential to reach the oceans.

Yet despite the new burst of scientific study, solving the problem in the face of an increasing volume of ocean trash seems an almost insurmountable task.

Photo of a boy collecting trash on an Albanian beach.
A boy collects debris on a beach near Durres on Albania's Adriatic Coast on April 9, 2010.
Photograph by Arben Celi, Reuters

Options Are Few: Cleanup or Prevention

An alliance of 48 plastic manufacturers from 25 countries—all members of the Global Plastics Associations for Solutions on Marine Litter—has pledged to help prevent marine debris and encourage recycling. Several manufacturers are now marketing products made partly from recycled ocean plastics and abandoned fishing gear.

But the consensus among many scientists, including NOAA's, is that cleaning up the oceans can potentially cause more harm than good. Cleaning up micro-plastics could also inadvertently sweep up plankton, which provides the basis for the marine food chain and half of the photosynthesis on Earth.

Ocean trash is driven by currents into loosely formed garbage "patches" that Dianna Parker, a NOAA spokesperson, says are more accurately described as "peppery soup" filled with grain-size plastic bits. The word "patch" suggests a defined size and location, when in fact floating debris is constantly moving, shifting with seasonal weather, and changing in shape and size.

Cleaning up even one of these areas seems impossible. Not surprisingly, the largest patch is in the largest ocean—the Pacific, which covers a third of the planet. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it is known, is often said to be twice the size of Texas. It actually extends, at times, from Japan to San Francisco, and varies in shape and density. According to NOAA, cleaning up less than one percent of the North Pacific would take 68 ships working 10 hours a day for a year.

Beach cleanups help, but are costly and ineffective. The Ocean Conservancy, the international leader in coastal cleanups, has collected some 180 million tons in three decades of work. "We have now created the world's best database for what actually happens on our beaches," says Andreas Merkl, the group's CEO. "We are the largest end-of-the-pipe, ocean-specific trash entity."

San Francisco spends $6 million a year cleaning up cigarette butts alone, according to NOAA figures in a report called the "The Honolulu Strategy: A Global Framework for Prevention and Management of Marine Debris." The Honolulu Strategy, developed at a NOAA conference in 2011, notes that a more effective solution is to prevent debris from being swept into the oceans in the first place.

But as long as some countries lack the ability to efficiently collect garbage from its citizens, that garbage will continue to end up in the ocean.

Plastic-Making Technology Spreads

Ted Siegler, a partner at DSM Environmental Services, a waste management firm in Windsor, Vermont, has spent a career helping developing countries set up garbage collection systems.

"In many ways, this is really simple. This is putting trucks on the road and picking up the garbage and bringing it to a proper place," he says. "But none of that is occurring in almost all of the places that I've been working in the last 20 years."

The complication, Siegler says, is the speed with which plastic manufacturing technology has spread globally.

"I could walk into a guy's garage in Jordan and he would be blowing film to create plastic bags. Or walk into an industrial shop in Vietnam and a guy would have a brand-new Chinese knockoff of a Frito-Lay packaging machine," he says.

"There is no end in sight to how much plastic we are going to be producing and how much we are going to be using, and that's the scary part. If it's important now, it's going to be much more important ten years from now."

Follow Laura Parker on Twitter.

71 comments
Nainoa Mariner
Nainoa Mariner

Since you reported on ocean plastics I thought you’d be interested in a view supported by the latest report in the formal science literature on ocean plastics. In the very worst samples in the ‘garbage patches’ of the world’s oceans the researchers report finding about 1kg of plastic in a sq. kilometer. This 1kg was in pieces smaller than 5 cm across and the vast majority were closer to 1mm or less in size. 


Given that a single human eyelash weighs 20 mg it would take 50,000 eyelashes to make up 1kg. Keep in mind the paper shows very few samples at this level of accumulated ‘garbage’ were observed. Also keep in mind that a sq. kilometer is 1 million sq. meters. So the typical amount of plastic found in the MOST contaminated ocean garbage patches rises to the stunningly messy amount equal to 1 eyelash worth of plastic in each 20 sq. meters of ocean! That’s the worst case observation in the myriad of samples studied in this study aimed at defining how much plastic is in the most polluted open ocean gyres. 


The far more typical amount of plastic found was 1/1000th or less of that maximum amount or just 1 gm/km2! This amounts to 1 eyelash worth of plastic to be found in each 20,000 sq. meters of ocean or about the area of 4 football fields, that’s the area of 50 baseball infield diamonds for baseball fans since this is baseball season. And this is the accumulation of plastic over a long time, not some amount that is added to each day, or month, or year, it’s decades of accumulation!


The reason I bring this up is that it is so important that we all focus on the countless real environmental problems that have a sound scientific foundation behind them and not just sound bites that serve as click bait.  


The scientific paper can be read at the link below. 


http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/06/25/1314705111.full.pdf+html

Ebenye Abwenzoh
Ebenye Abwenzoh

CHANGE  IS A GRADUAL PROCESS THAT NEEDS TO BE EFFECTED WITH STRATEGY, GIVING ALTERNATIVES AND GETTING EVERY ONE INVOLVED. IT ALL STARTS WITH CREATING AWEARNESS OF THE DAMAGE WHICH LIES AHEAD. MOST PRODUCERS EVEN THE PROFIT HUNGRY ONES AND CONSUMERS REMAIN IGNORANT. BUT HOPE FOR THE FUTURE REMAINS WHEN THE LEAST IS DONE WHEN IT HAS TO BE DONE.


Robert Montano
Robert Montano

Why do you think that most of everything is made of plastic?The big Petroleum Companies..

Why is growing Hemp illegal until recently? The big Petroleum Companies.....


Using Hemp will do away with a lot of plastic products, but that is going into the pockets of big Petroleum Companies, so they will fight till the end and don't care about our oceans, the source of life for almost all of terrestrial life.


People the problems is not so much recycling as it is big money, this world one day will end and the money will stay behind.


How many of you ask for paper bags instead of plastic at the supermarket, not many, I don't, why?, because they don't have paper bags, we destroy our trees according to reports. Hemp is a major part of the solution, bags,clothing,shoes.


I buy most of my goods at Costco, no plastic bags there, you use the cardboard boxes that the goods came in, to begin with, to bring your goods home, when I get home the cardboard goes into my recycle bin and whala instant recycle. This is only a small example of what I do to help this world stay green, I recycle bottles,glass,cans into the recycle bins, and all of my fruit peels and other degradable products I have a compost receptacle where all of this gets turn into fertilizer for my garden.


I think is all up to us to do our small part and not to wonder how the problem is going to go away, it will not go away until all of us do our part.

Edward T Freeman
Edward T Freeman

I  am also upset with amount of plastic waste around, but you can only do so much,  All you can do is inform the public about the mess and they will do what they normally do . and ignore it.  Ted


jim west
jim west

I would like to see the UN, WWF or someone pull together an international fleet of fishing trawlers (such as those idled by overfishing) and whaling ships with as many scientists aboard as could be mustered, to clean it up. Some ships could be fitted with scrap balers to compress it for storage on cargo ships which could take it back for recycling.
Something needs to be done with this stuff and the sooner the better. A worldwide ban on plastic bottles and grocery bags would be a great, but implausible, start.

Jolene Evans
Jolene Evans

gary,~~~ I feel for your stance sometimes it must feel hopeless  :(

Gary Bridger
Gary Bridger

Again, reading the feed back. its not the plastic. its all rubbish in jeneral. 

Read my reports, Its education, of what people do with the rubbish, lack of Knowledge , lack of public awareness, Especially with local  people who do everyday jobs and never bother to understand the problem. Schools and public address for those who do not read , Or watch TV or access to the internet. After what i have seen here, people trowing from home windows, from car window, Walking in the street. they by their food and then throw the rubbish into the drains or street.  Those who use bins, the bins are over flowing, 

Flooded and Ash trays flooded, Out side shops and supermarkets, over spilling in rubbish. look what on the beach. And that that you do not see, that does not float. take a look at all the photos i am sick of taking, to get the message across! i have had some feed back from City hall that they are trying to improve, trying in my eyes is not good enough. its emirate  action. like i do. Spread the word. tell people , Share the information, Stop bickering about  how it effects you, 

Do something about it, I speak to people, tell people and throw my information in their face, To get reaction. People say, Why do i bother, like everything to day with the human race, they all wait in hope for some one els to clean up the mess, Well its to late , its in your food, The sea is and has in places become Toxic. Abundance of jelly fish, And things killing fish that we cannot see, they sting us, yet to pin point that one. 

The air we breath 80% come from the sea. over development , lime in the sea, lowering O2 increasing CO2 killing fish , forcing them to deeper water, Reefs bleaching, lack of marine life, more rain more heating of the planet.   the truth has not been told in fear of people panicking, 

We face food shortages far sooner then you think. CLEAN UP!


Gary Bridger
Gary Bridger

http://garbageandtrash.blogspot.com/        Well i have contacted all the athorities. Im fighting this the best way i can, Its a lonely  stand, As so many do not care, Children , teenagers play with it around them, You explain, and they laugh. May think its to low for them to pick up trash. As i say. its not the plastic, its the people, 


they think the world is a dump. , Read my stories of what goes on. how it has become like this. 

Debbie.  Bruntz
Debbie. Bruntz

Why don't they charge a deposit on plsome plastics like they use to on glass pop bottles?

James Bundy
James Bundy

Sorry, if you want to live like hobbits in adobe huts scratching a living as agricultural laborers on organic farms, go right ahead. Many of my English ancestors did exactly that. I like my comfortable world. Having said that, I do recycle all the plastic I can, except for No6 which nobody wants. How about starting with that, no more No 6 which seemingly can't be recycled into anything. Use other plastics that can be reused, and then charge an extra fee if the customer's garbage includes plastics, so that someone else can be paid to separate it out. Plastics are never going away. I've been hospitalized twice this spring, and there's all plastic there. What do you suggest I use for a catheter I need sometimes? Oh, could use one like the Romans had, made of BRONZE! Believe me, plastic ones are bad enough.  . 

Christopher Laughton
Christopher Laughton

... how can you possibly write a piece on Ocean Cleanup without mentioning the most promising work being carried out in this field - surely it couldn't be because it's in the Netherlands and not the USA?!

http://www.theoceancleanup.com/

Robin Willoughby
Robin Willoughby

Humans are struck with a major dilemma that is our shortsightedness as a spices. Our "Let the future deal with this" attitude is causing us to set in motion a series of events, that could if not stopped quickly cause a major failing of the planet or our species .Government's should be trying to deal with the problems of the future rather than "How are we going to get elected next year?" Quota.    

Mike Tyburski
Mike Tyburski

The same reason why we don't flush paper towels down the toilet!

Punita Koustubhan
Punita Koustubhan

people seem to still have an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude. we need more low cost solutions to replace all the plastic. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, and we are destroying forests and compromising water quality so we can use a plastic bottle/packaging just so we can use it once and then throw it away where it ends up in the ocean just to come back to shore as chemical soup. Corporations are making a ton of money on packaging but they are not paying for clean up. Starting to charge for the bags is a good idea but we need to eliminate them all together...start changing culture.

Sharalyn Pliler
Sharalyn Pliler

After hearing about the Twice-Texas sized patch found in the Pacific, our local organic/natural food store stopped using plastic bags entirely, and i bought a couple of nylon bags that fit into a draw-string bag small enough and light enough to fit into my purse thinking that this would help with the plastic problem. But how incongruous this seemed when virtually everything that went into the bags was packaged in plastic! 


Also, it created a  new problem--that of what to use for trash bags. For years I have foregone the use of "trash bags" in favor of reusing the plastic bags gotten from shopping, for lining trash cans. But we use plastics everywhere-- in construction, manufacturing, technology, communications, etc., etc. etc. endlessly. 


Seeing this, i was horrified. I saw no way I could cease using plastic even in my own life because virtually everything I buy has plastic in it, and worse, our whole  culture is based on plastic! Plastic is cheap and easy, and it makes things affordable that would not otherwise be so. So what can we do? Like Linda Busby says below, I think we have killed ourselves. 

sang hee moon
sang hee moon

the garbage problem in the ocean did not used to be seen as a problem so often it was mentioned with #globalwarming and #pollution.  But this picture grabbed the attention "this spring during the search for the missing Malaysian jet, when multiple satellite images of floating debris repeatedly turned out to be garbage instead of pieces of the Boeing 777," so full of plastic the shore was.   Before I would say "don't throw the trash", now-- it has be looked at collectively.  

Carolyn Orndoff
Carolyn Orndoff

I was thinking of all the different ways I could avoid using plastic.  I wondered if I could live totally plastic free. Then I wondered if I really wanted to give up my laptop. No. So, what if an alternative to plastic could be developed? I think this is more than a possibility.



Linda Busby
Linda Busby

The garbage will kill our waters and in turn kill the waterlife.When the whales cannot survive in our waters that means the end of man also for we will not be able to survive either.We will have killed ourselves from all of the pollution.

Constantin Ungureanu
Constantin Ungureanu

HEMP PLASTIC ... google it people, it is biodegradable and it inexpensive to make 

Edward Arntz
Edward Arntz

we can look for a plane for months , what a waste of money and time , use the money to pick up trash, not bodies


zhuangning jee
zhuangning jee

Everyone has responsibility to protect the mother nature as to pay back what we have done to her dreadfully. In fact, we as the most 'greedy suckers'  who have been exploiting every single of precious resource out of the her since the creation of human being. Now it's time for all of us to live up the wonders of mother nature!!! 

Stephen Hemphill
Stephen Hemphill

"But while climate change is still mired in politics and is a target of naysayers"???

Fear of Climate change is PUSHED by politics, by those who want the ultimate control - control of energy.  Read the IPCC Technical Summary written by the actual scientists, not the Summary for Policymakers by the political arm.  Go especially to the end - TS.6 - where they list a couple of pages of uncertainties, many of which are cumulative.  That's the bottom line - literally.

http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_TS_FINAL.pdf

No, plastic debris is a REAL problem.

Dr Ranveer Mahwar
Dr Ranveer Mahwar

Let us try to reduce the involvement of plastic materials in our life styles. 

Paul G
Paul G

WALL-E - it's just a matter of time if we don't wake up. 

R. Harding
R. Harding

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX                     
          ** READ THIS IT IS IMPORTANT TO US                            
       WE WANT KNOWLEDGE WE HAVE IT RIGHT HERE,**                        
      XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX


***I HAVE GOOD NEWS PEOPLE ***
   CONGRESS IN THE STATES OF AMERICA

**** IS GOING TO LISTEN TO US***

LETS HOUND THEM WITH ALL THE KNOWLEDGE WE GOT
OF WHATS RELAY HAPPENING TO THE OCEAN

 HERE IS THE LINK TO THE STORY I'VE JUST FOUND

 
******** http://news.msn.com/world/us-hosts-talks-to-save-oceans-under-siege**** 


S. Boojarian
S. Boojarian

The best solution for pollution is dilution. However, if the culture of recycling and suitable disposal improves, there would be less problems.

poor old planet earth, how generous and kind you are.

Ave Atque Vale
Ave Atque Vale

Money over nature...The earth will still be here long after the human race has disappeared... Poor planet...  You will be better off without us.

Shanti Senj
Shanti Senj

We Have UNO, NATO, G8 , SAARC, Others.. High Time To Form A World Body To Stop This, Something Like CTBT ...All Will Readily Accept To Join Because All Knows The Consequence..


ashley Pruitt
ashley Pruitt

http://www.terracycle.com/en-US/pages/how-terracycle-works.html

TerraCycle is on a mission to eliminate the idea of waste. We do this by creating waste collection programs (each one is called a “Brigade”) for previously non-recyclable, or difficult-to-recycle, waste. The collected waste is then converted into new products, ranging from recycled park benches to upcycled backpacks.

Leo Alapont
Leo Alapont

Real easy to fix: recycle or stop using plastic. Companies should stop using plastic to package things.

John Hall
John Hall

I spenty a lot of time on oceanographic ships in the 1960's, but sampling plankton and the benthos.


In both kinds of samples we found all kinds of human detritus. On the surface, we found lots of oil balls, floating plastic, Japanese glass net floats, etc.


In bentic samples from 5,000 feet and deeper, we found nylon stockings, watermelon seeds, beer cans, etc.


On one cruise in the Caribbean, we found many boluses of tar floating on the surface, with gooseneck barnacles attached.


Dr. Richard Backus used some of my photographs for a note in "Science."


I really can't imagine what things are like now!

Gary Bridger
Gary Bridger

@Paul G You got it! So much truth and its rapidly building. people watch films like that, but never sink in the message being told. 

Mark Jenks
Mark Jenks

@Ave Atque Vale  Please speak for yourself if self-deprecation is your fancy.  Some of us members of the human race may have the ability to do the earth good.  Well, may, at any rate.

Gary Bridger
Gary Bridger

@Leo Alapont Read above. nothing to do with the plastic, if we use something els , it will still land up in the sea, floating rubbish is at least floating and can be seen. Go scuba diving walk on a beach as you see on my links, Not just plastic , Although 70% is. Aerosol cans and electrical, toys ,cloths, head bans, shoes, if it unwanted , it land up in the sea. take a look at my posts. 

Mary Olson
Mary Olson

@Leo Alapont it should be 'world or earth law' for companies not to use plastic that doesn't have an end cycle. It should be law that all toothbrushes, pens, sunglasses, plastic bags, containers, food wrap, and especially plastic 'one use wonders' should be made out of biodegradable or recyclable plastic. How has that not been put into place yet? When will it be an emergency enough to make this a world law? NOw.

Juan Carlos Mora
Juan Carlos Mora

I don't think it's self-deprecation. It's the truth even if you don't want to accept it. Our time is finite in this world and it's a shame that we have done more bad than good. Especially if you look at history of our evolution you will see that we have become evermore selfish. Take a hard look at your own life and see how much you have done to improve the health of our planet!

Share

How to Feed Our Growing Planet

  • Feed the World

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

The Innovators Project

See more innovators »

Latest News Video

See more videos »

See Us on Google Glass

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »