270,000 Tons of Plastic Floating in World's Oceans

Dec 11, 2014 05:32 AM EST | Matt Mercuro

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Nearly 270,000 tons of plastic is floating in the world's oceans, according to a new study. That is enough to fill more than 38,500 garbage trucks.

Plastic is broken up into nearly 5 trillion pieces, which makes it easier for pieces to get away, according to the study published on Dec. 10 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Markus Eriksen of the 5 Gyres Institute, an organization that aims to reduce plastic in the oceans, led the study according to the Associated Press.

The new paper is just the latest in a nascent field where scientists are attempting to get a better hold on how much the synthetic material is entering the oceans and how it is affecting birds, fish and larger marine ecosystems.

In order to gather data, researchers dragged a mesh net at the sea surface to collect small pieces. Observers on boats counted larger items and used computer models to calculate estimates for tracts of ocean not studied yet.

The study only measured plastic floating at the surface, not on the ocean floor.

Pieces larger than 8 inches accounted for three-quarters of the plastic that the research estimated is in the ocean currently.

"Our findings show that the garbage patches in the middle of the five subtropical gyres are not the final resting places for the world's floating plastic trash," says Marcus Eriksen, Director of Research for the 5 Gyres Institute, according to the AP report. "The endgame for micro-plastic is interactions with entire ocean ecosystems."

Studying the amount of plastic in the ocean should help scientists understand how the material will affect the environment and the food chain.

Law said, for example, we might eat tuna that has ingested another fish that has eaten plastic that has eaten another fish with plastic. These plastic could have toxic chemicals.

"Am I being poisoned by eating the fish on my plate?" she asked, according to the AP report. "We have very little knowledge of the chain of events that could lead to that. But it's a plausible scenario that plastic ingested at lower levels of the food web could have consequences at higher levels of the food chain."

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