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Study: Plastic debris widespread on ocean surface

By Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 09:50 a.m. HST, Jun 30, 2014

NEW YORK >> Plastic junk is floating widely on the world's oceans, but there's less of it than expected, a study says.

Such ocean pollution has drawn attention in recent years because of its potential harm to fish and other wildlife.

The new work drew on results from an around-the-world cruise by a research ship that towed a mesh net at 141 sites, as well as other studies. Researchers estimated the total amount of floating plastic debris in open ocean at 7,000 to 35,000 tons.

Andres Cozar of the University of Cadiz in Spain, an author of the study, said that's a lot less than the 1 million tons he had extrapolated from data reaching back to the 1970s.

The new estimate includes only floating debris, not plastic that may reside beneath the surface or on the ocean floor.

Of the plastic pieces caught by the ship's net, most were less than about a fifth of an inch long. Some floating pieces start out small, like the microbeads found in some toothpastes and cosmetics or industrial pellets used to make plastic products. Other small pieces can result when wave action breaks up larger objects, like bottle caps, detergent bottles and shopping bags.

The net turned up fewer small pieces than expected, and it will be important to figure out why, researchers said. Perhaps the tiniest pieces are being eaten by small fish, with uncertain effects on their health, Cozar said in an email.

While the research showed plastic to be distributed widely, concentrations were highest in five areas that were predicted by ocean current patterns. They are west of the U.S., between the U.S. and Africa, west of southern South America and east and west of the southern tip of Africa.

Plastic debris from land reaches the ocean mostly through storm water runoff, the researchers said in their report, released Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Kara Lavender Law, who studies plastic pollution at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, said the study provides the first global estimate she knows of for floating plastic debris. The estimate appears to be in the ballpark, given the results of prior regional studies, said Law, who didn't participate in the new work.

"We are putting, certainly by any estimate, a large amount of a synthetic material into a natural environment," Law said. "We're fundamentally changing the composition of the ocean."

The impact on fish and birds is hard to gauge because scientists don't understand things like how much plastic animals encounter and how they might be harmed if they swallow it, she said.

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Mythman wrote:
"Might be harmed if the swallow it"??????
on June 30,2014 | 10:24AM
leino wrote:
"The impact on fish and birds is hard to gauge..." .... really!! Look at the pictures of the dead albatross birds from the North Wes Hawaiian Islands [ French Frigate Shoals] that swallowed plastic. The really scary thing is that for all practical considerations plastic does not decompose .... the pieces just get smaller. No animal on this planet has genetically evolved to metabolize plastic. Google search "microplastics pollution" for lots of information on this subject .... not good!
on June 30,2014 | 10:54AM
islandsun wrote:
Mostly from irresponsible fishermen.
on June 30,2014 | 10:54AM
bluemoki wrote:
Not mostly, although some of it is definitely from discarded or lost fishing gear. A lot of plastic comes from shipping containers lost overboard during storms. Happens a lot more than companies like Matson are willing to admit.
on June 30,2014 | 11:40AM
808ikea wrote:
I'm not so sure the primary sources of plastic are from shipping containers or fishing industry. I certainly think they are contributors, but I think run off from streams and rivers may have a big part.
on June 30,2014 | 01:21PM
false wrote:
And they don't care on bit.
on June 30,2014 | 11:49AM
false wrote:
That's a lot of junk including the fishing nets.
on June 30,2014 | 11:49AM
mcc wrote:
Why do lawmaker's have such a hard time to outlaw this? Common sense say outlaw, bribes and campaign donations say no!
on June 30,2014 | 11:50AM
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