National Geographic News
Plastic bag floating underwater at Pulau Bunaken. Indonesia.

A plastic bag floats in the water off the coast of Pulau Bunaken, Indonesia.

Photograph by Paul Kennedy, Getty

Laura Parker

National Geographic

Published July 15, 2014

When marine ecologist Andres Cozar Cabañas and a team of researchers completed the first ever map of ocean trash, something didn't quite add up.

Their work, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, did find millions of pieces of plastic debris floating in five large subtropical gyres in the world's oceans. But plastic production has quadrupled since the 1980s, and wind, waves, and sun break all that plastic into tiny bits the size of rice grains. So there should have been a lot more plastic floating on the surface than the scientists found.

"Our observations show that large loads of plastic fragments, with sizes from microns to some millimeters, are unaccounted for in the surface loads," says Cozar, who teaches at the University of Cadiz in Spain, by e-mail. "But we don't know what this plastic is doing. The plastic is somewhere—in the ocean life, in the depths, or broken down into fine particles undetectable by nets."

What effect those plastic fragments will have on the deep ocean—the largest and least explored ecosystem on Earth—is anyone's guess. "Sadly," Cozar says, "the accumulation of plastic in the deep ocean would be modifying this enigmatic ecosystem before we can really know it."

But where exactly is the unaccounted-for plastic? In what amounts? And how did it get there?

"We must learn more about the pathway and ultimate fate of the 'missing' plastic," Cozar says.

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere

One reason so many questions remain unanswered is that the science of marine debris is so young. Plastic was invented in the mid-1800s and has been mass produced since the end of World War II. In contrast, ocean garbage has been studied for slightly more than a decade.

"This is new mainly because people always thought that the solution to pollution was dilution, meaning that we could turn our head, and once it is washed away—out of sight, out of mind," says Douglas Woodring, co-founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance, a Hong Kong-based charitable group working to reduce the flow of plastic into the oceans.

The North Pacific Garbage Patch, a loose collection of drifting debris that accumulates in the northern Pacific, first drew notice when it was  discovered in 1997 by adventurer Charles Moore as he sailed back to California after competing in a yachting competition.

A turning point came in 2004, when Richard Thompson, a British marine biologist at Plymouth University, concluded that most marine debris was plastic.

Research on marine debris is also complicated by the need to include a multidiscipline group of experts, ranging from oceanographers to solid-waste-management engineers.

"We are at the very early stages of understanding the accounting," says Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association, based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  "If we think ten or a hundred times more plastic is entering the ocean than we can account for, then where is it? We still haven't answered that question.

"And if we don't know where it is or how it is impacting organisms," she adds, "we can't tell the person on the street how big the problem is."

Law, along with Thompson, is one of 22 scientists researching marine debris for the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The group is grappling with some of these questions and plans to publish a series of papers later this year.

One of the most significant contributions made by Cozar's team, says Law, was data collected in the Southern Hemisphere: "I can't tell you how rare that is."

New Maps Document Floating Plastic Trash

Tens of thousands of tons of plastic garbage float on the surface waters in the world's oceans, according to researchers who mapped giant accumulation zones of trash in all five subtropical ocean gyres. Ocean currents act as "conveyor belts," researchers say, carrying debris into massive convergence zones that are estimated to contain millions of plastic items per square kilometer in their inner cores.
Map shows plastic debris in surface water of world's oceans. Created in-house by Jamie Hawk (Ryan Morris).
NG STAFF, JAMIE HAWK. SOURCE: ANDRÉS COZAR, UNIVERSITY OF CÁDIZ, SPAIN

One Answer

Cozar's team was part of the Malaspina expedition of 2010, a nine-month research project led by the Spanish National Research Council to study the effects of global warming on the oceans and the biodiversity of the deep ocean ecosystem. Originally Cozar was assigned to study small fauna living on the ocean surface. But when tiny plastic fragments kept turning up in water samples collected by the expedition scientists, Cozar was reassigned to assess the level of plastic pollution.

The two-ship expedition spent nine months circumnavigating the world. But Cozar also used data gathered by four other ships that had traveled to the polar regions, the South Pacific, and the North Atlantic to complete the map.

The team analyzed 3,070 water samples. "One of the most striking observations was the conspicuous presence of plastic in the surface samples, even thousands of kilometers from the continents," he says. "The plastic garbage patch in the South Atlantic Gyre was one of the most striking."

See how scientists and artists have gathered and studied ocean debris to put the problem of trash into perspective.

Cozar says that one answer to the missing-plastic mystery is that some of the tiniest bits of plastic are being consumed by small fish, which live in the murky mesopelagic zone, 600 feet to 3,300 feet (180 to 1,000 meters) below the surface. Little is known about these mesopelagic fish, Cozar says, other than that they're abundant. They hide in the darkness of the ocean to avoid predators and swim to the surface at night to feed.

"We found plastics in the stomachs of the fishes collected during Malaspina's circumnavigation," he says. "We are working on this now."

One of the most common mesopelagic fish is the lantern fish, which lives in the central ocean gyres and is the main link in the tropical zone between plankton and marine vertebrates. Because lantern fish serve as a primary food source for commercially harvested fish, including tuna and swordfish, any plastic they eat ends up in the food chain.

"There are signs enough to suggest that plankton-eaters, the small fishes, are important conduits for plastic pollution and associated contaminants," Cozar says. "If this assumption is confirmed, the impacts of a man-sustained plastic pollution could extend over the ocean predators on a large scale."

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70 comments
Vicki Heidorn
Vicki Heidorn

Be principled and mindful as you navigate our modern conveniences and bad consumption habits.  If you drive, bundle your errands to use less gas.

At point of purchase, ask yourself about the waste and what you will do about it.  Cut up plastic rings EVERY TIME so they don't ensnare wildlife. 

Purchase used goods.  Use your own bags at the checkout.  

Pick up other peoples' trash and recyclables.  Carry a trash bag everywhere.  Grow something edible.  

Computers, guess what, are not green.  It's a complicated world.  

If your industry is in the cross-hairs, you don't want to lose your livelihood.  

Vote with your feet and stop using plastic.


My investment advisers say growth is in oil and gas, among other established industries.  They do not advise investment in risky new companies that provide safer innovations. Purchase from the conscientious companies and reduce your purchasing from the damaging companies. 

Kishore Halder
Kishore Halder

I Agree With Michel Gravel ...Its Really Onetime Pay Back Time ,


Michel Gravel
Michel Gravel

What a FREAKIN' mess........humans are supposed to be the most intelligent "species" on Earth, but acts like the most stupid!! No to far from now.......it's gonna be PAY-BACK time........the planet's gonna see to it!!

dAvid Blanco
dAvid Blanco

I woud like to leave a message to you all...It is already impossible to clean this. Try to imagine the vast extension of water that we are talking about and the cost of sending ships to collect this debris. Also think about the small size of this plastic, trying to collect it would be the same as destroying the plancton. Even great invents as "The Ocean Cleanup" cannot deal with this fact, and could not collect the great amounts of litter that is not floating on the surface.

FIRST STEP IS NOT TO CONSUME ANY PLASTIC ITEM ANY MORE.

And I encourage you to try in our modern society to live 1 week not consuming any plastic...

Now you got a real idea of the problem...

Nicky Micallef
Nicky Micallef

Any way to join your team and help clean the world?

Lina Cuartas
Lina Cuartas

This is like a pseudopod issue , it is far more insidious than we have ever fathomed. Tthe rivers, which feed the oceans, and lakes, are also repositories of tons of waste, as well as the forests that line these environments. We have picked up trash in the rivers of Louisiana, the Amazon River, Lake Titicaca, the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans,and countless urban and rural trails, the vanishing wishfull attitude towards trash is burying us alive within our own waste.

Jim Ries
Jim Ries

Great report.  Thanks for sharing.  This is exactly why our two young founders created their weeklong Plastic and Recycling Awareness Curricula.  We need to educate the next generation of leaders on the issue and give them the tools they need to start being the solution to the issue of plastic pollution: http://onemoregeneration.org/educational-program-info/

Gabriela K.
Gabriela K.

Why must people always take another plastic bag with their shopping? Can´t they take a cotton bag that one can use for some years? I try to do so, even if it doesn´t work always.

Dylan Burrow
Dylan Burrow

Well, in 50 billion years it won't matter, since the sun will vaporize everything!


Reza Taufik Ismet
Reza Taufik Ismet

I went to West Bali last year, Menjangan National Park to be exact. I took a boat to go to a snorkeling spot there, which was visually entertaining if not richly colorful down there, both the corals and the fishes. But sadly, the surface is almost entirely covered with trash, plastic mostly. It's so ironic how contrast the surface of the ocean and the scene underneath.

Cathy Ritter
Cathy Ritter

I am appalled at the amount of trash that is thoughtlessly thrown on the ground, in the lakes, rivers and oceans and even out in the middle of our forests. It is a sad day when you drive an hour up into the mountains and find a washing machine, household furniture, tires and plain old trash. I feel ashamed some days to belong to this race. I do hope that we as a people,  wake up real soon and start protecting what we have instead of spending billions of dollars to see if we can survive in space. In 100 years we've managed to do more harm to this planet in it's lifetime. I don't think who or what ever put us here will make the same mistake again.


George Heise
George Heise

Now that debris has been mapped, what is being done to remove it and head off what may already be a MAJOR human catastrophy ?

David Zeth
David Zeth

Probably the missing plastic is alredy been fished and used by some smart industry as a free source


Twinkle Jaiswal
Twinkle Jaiswal

Recycling of wastes is very much important now, else we will have to bear the consequences. 

Paul Sharp
Paul Sharp

The cause of this problem is modern corporate structure which mandates profitable return to shareholders as their sole purpose. Corporate structure must be modified to require social and environmental profit be just as important.  When this occurs we will find most of the world's social and environmental ills will be addressed. Currently big plastic pollution producers like the beverage industry could not move to a model that eliminates plastic pollution as their shareholders would revolt.

Keith Walters
Keith Walters

When new biodegradable plastics decompose what do they leave behind?


Keith Walters
Keith Walters

It is tragic how human waste has become such a MASSIVE problem to the Oceans and the creatures that live in them.


A huge new industry could evolve, possibly converting outdated cruise ships or super tankers to process and compact this garbage for further re-use and recycling.  Melting the waste enough to make cubes (bales) of plastic for storage for transfer to further processing plants on shore.


Maybe the Japanese could use the Nishan Maru whaling factory ship for this instead of illegal slaughter of whales in the Southern Whale Sanctuary...

Jim Ries
Jim Ries

 Thanks for the detailed report.  This is exactly why our two young founders created their weeklong Plastic and Recycling Awareness Curriculum.  They wrote the program to match the latest National and State Standards for science and they even have math, literacy and art infused throughout.  Check out the teacher overview and let us know what you think.


http://onemoregeneration.org/educational-program-info/

Thank again from all of us here at OMG ;-)

John Davis
John Davis

Stop the input.

If it is concentrated go out there in these 6 concentration spots and pick it up and compact it and or incinerate it. This stuff weighs nothing big giant wet vac should do the trick. I realize that it is a monumental task but doable and cheap and will take decades.

J Taylor
J Taylor

This imense problem is from the ocean dumping of garbage. When will the people of Earth realize that there is no "overthere" because we are "everywhere" All 8-9 Billion of us. It should be a rule that all packaging be a form of cellulose that biodegrades and that plastic is to be realized as toxic waste and return to using "Glass" After all glass is made out of the sand of the oceans beaches and thats where the glass can recycle to naturally. Another issue  Is Oil spills and leaks. What if the data showed the the sheen worldwide of leaked oil, diesel fuel etc is interfereing with the proper evapration of water from thr worlds oceans and is actually causing droughts worldwide instead of the burning of fosil fuels.

Also the sound of 9 Billion toilets flushing untreated waste is still being dumped world wide especially in places like China and India just look on Google Earth at the algae blooms  off their coasts. Algae suffocates fish and toxifies the water

Michael Wysocki
Michael Wysocki

I think a necessary prompt thing to do is ban plastic grocery bags. Period! I live in LA, not to say that it's the cleanest city, but plastic bags have been banned here. I had no idea what impact it had made on me until I went to NYC last week. I feel like all I saw was plastic bags. The check out people everywhere in the US automatically throw even a pack of gum in a plastic bag, for our "convenience." It's frustrating me for sure, but most of all disappointing of the lack of consideration for the planet, in our daily lives :(

Sunil Jagota
Sunil Jagota

Once i went to a 5 star hotel and ordered a Maine Lobster dish. I couldn't believe  that there were plastics in lobster's head. This is a very serious problem, as some animals can not distinguish what to eat and not to.

Cody Riley
Cody Riley

It sickens me to think that the worlds trash is being reintroduced into the oceans food chain and then ultimately into our food market. The floating trash islands are just the tip of the iceberg and I'm dreading the consequences on marine life. 

Chrissie Raffensperger
Chrissie Raffensperger

I thought it was already confirmed that plastic was getting into the animals. I watched a talk on how dolphins were experiencing higher than average death rates for first born calves because their mothers after building up toxins in their bodies from our man made material had those same toxins in their milk that the calves drank and then died of poisoning. Some of my details may be a little off because it was a number of weeks since the talk but the idea is essentially the same - we're killing the oceans with our waste. 

Pete Walker
Pete Walker

@Nicky Micallef Clean? We haven't even stopped creating the trash. We haven't even slowed the growth of plastic trash!

It gets me that 1st worlders have to buy water in plastic bottles when we all have access to good-enough tap water.

Janice Savoie
Janice Savoie

@Nicky Micallef  I was wondering the same thing... can this be turned into some kind of Eco-tourism gig... ?  people get to see the beauty and contribute to cleaning!

Meg Waters
Meg Waters

@Sahaja Om I was going to suggest him and his invention as well. 


However, instead of spending a bunch of money to just study the problem and to research Boyan's Slat's design how about we just clean it up.


Charge Cruise Ship passengers $1.00 each per voyage. all of which goes to fund the making of and the studying of and the Boyan's design, also private yachts and sailboats, corporate yachts, charge cargo ships, oil tankers, fishing boats, coast guard, military ships etc. either $5.00 per voyage or $100.00 per year. Also outlaw all dumping of garbage of these ships, and oil platforms that all have a bad practice of dumping their garbage at sea. It is beyond me why that hasn't been illegal since the 1970s. Also set up a fund to pay the public  for reporting and documenting any violators to encourage compliance with a no dumping policy. Any employee dumping garbage into the ocean or sea while at sea or in port the company/corporation/county gets fined $100,000 the first time, 250,000 the second time, and each additional violation the cost doubles up to 6 times per vessel then the ship must be sold and all proceeds of the sale goes to cleaning the ocean for any companies making over $1,000,000 a year. Small fishing companies or private fishing boats and private yachts, sailboats etc. making less than $1,000,000 will have fines starting at $1,000 for the first offense $2,500 for the second and each additional fine up to 6 total doubles then the vessel is sold and proceeds go to clean the ocean. Any individual person as a passenger of a ship is fined $100.00 the first time, $250.00 the second time and the cost doubles each additional violation up to 6 times in a lifetime then they can no longer go out to sea. If someone wants to whine about keeping the garbage on the ship, suck it up, they make trash compactors and some of you have supply ships meet you, have them haul the trash back with them, if your still going to whine think of ways to reduce the amount of trash you produce. Fishing boats can dump oyster shells, fish guts and heads back in to the ocean as those are organic things that originated in the ocean.


I do realize that there is quite a bit of trash that comes off of beaches, coastal highways and floats down rivers. So my proposal won't get rid off all of it, but it might help. For as brilliant as some humans are I swear it is only the stupid ones that make policies and say lets study it first. Seriously it would have made much more sense to have not been using the ocean or the world for that matter as a trash can in the first place. I don't know about the rest of you but it really does make a difference when you don't litter in the first place, if there is no trash can, put it in your pocket, bag, backpack  whatever just clean it up.

Julie Hobbs
Julie Hobbs

@Cathy Ritter Hey sweetie we are in the same mind set I am also appall ed by this generation that believes they are creating jobs if they trash the place where in the world did this come from? And I don't know where you live but I know that here in the U.S.A> that cities in the NE have dumped in the atlantic... such a mess

megan mckinney
megan mckinney

@George Heise  I have a college student in my class who had a hand in making a boat that automatically sifts through the trash and squishes it into a cube and puts it in it's hold. It's like a "wall-I" for the ocean. It runs on solar power, they are building some right now

S. Knudsen
S. Knudsen

@Laura Lucas They are now at 78% funding. I enjoy updating the browser and seeing the number rise. Mostly I'm just puzzled no governments has chipped in and said - we'll fund this - it's a pittance, and the positive outcome could be enormous.

Sarah Keller
Sarah Keller

@Paul Sharp Okay, so you identified the problem. But let me ask you this, aside from outing these corporate conglomerates who, no doubt, are far too greedy with even their own time to be out browsing the rhetoric on the mass message boards to stop and say, "Oh hey, look at this cheeky lad, he's got us all figured out--perhaps we ought to do something to change that perspective"; what are YOU doing to change this? What do you propose others do to change this? Some of us are shareholders. Some of us might become all of us who would revolt for not using things like bamboo or hemp in place of plastic. Because surely these big conglomerates have to be willing to change, or else we'd all still be drinking soda pop out of bottles, right? So what do *you* propose *we* do to change all of this? And what are YOU doing to make that happen? 

Benjamin Watson
Benjamin Watson

@Keith Walters Depends on the "biodegradable" portion of the plastic. I am working on my master's degree studying a biologically produce plastic replacement. We use cow manure to feed bacteria which produce PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates) which has similar material properties to polypropylene. The advantage to PHA is the biological based production, It lasts between 3 weeks to 9 months in a natural habitat depending on the number of bacteria present (i.e. Landfill, Saltwater, Marsh). Bacteria produced it so they are more then happy to consume it. Current commercial uses for PHA are dissolving medical sutures, they work well because even our body can break down the PHA molecule. 

Maida Hdzi
Maida Hdzi

@John Davis Keep in mind that these huge areas  of ocean that are filled with plastic actually aren't heaps of large, visible pieces of plastic. They are broken-down tiny pieces, polymers, that cannot simply be 'picked up' or compacted. You are right about one thing though - we need to stop the input in the first place. 

Amir Patel
Amir Patel

@Rik van Hemmen it says 'measured number of plastic items per square kilometer (in THOUSANDS!!)

so when it says 700-3,500 it actually means 700,000 - 3.5million. 
3.5 million pieces of plastic per square km is quite a bit. 

L. Stankevicius
L. Stankevicius

@Sarah Keller @Paul Sharp He's understanding the problem, being aware of it, maybe he's consuming less, maybe recycling (lets assume that works to some extent). [AND] he is definitely not criticizing anyone who thinks that corporate structure is a problem. You don't suggest that this guy Paul sharp is 'the guy' who's going to change the world, or are you? To point out the problem, and not doing anything (which might not be the case in this particular instance) is still way better than criticizing someone for being aware of the problem. How would you imagine that some sort of global change would happen if no one is aware of it? People these days getting so much information considering pollution and many other huge problems of our day, that the changes are inevitable, and being aware and not happy that these sort of thing happen is a one step closer to solving it. So please stop being so judgemental. Because clearly this won't help to solve the problem either. Peace

Mare Van Dyke
Mare Van Dyke

@Sarah Keller @Paul Sharp It will take a small, repeatable action by many to make a difference. At Aqwastream, we've developed a personal water bottle refill and digital media station. Chilled, filtered water is dispensed for free and the core media on the digital screen is compelling environmental content. As founding partner and CEO of our start-up, I make most of my presentations in board rooms where single-use plastic bottles circle the table. It's a hard sell, even to young people. The monetary benefit of selling water to students rather than sponsoring refill stations is overwhelming. Yet, we stay committed because we believe it will take the small action of many to make a difference ...one refill at a time.

Rik van Hemmen
Rik van Hemmen

@Amir Patel @Rik van Hemmen You are correct, but that is not really the point, it simply means the pieces are even tinier than I indicated. The real issue is that the original technical paper provides very small plastic mass per square kilometer numbers and NG makes it look like a huge amount. Weirdly my original comment has been deleted. Not conscious of doing that. Would NG have deleted it? Why?

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