Humans Put 8 Million Metric Tons Of Plastic In The Oceans Each Year

For the first time, scientists have quantified the amount of plastic waste being dumped into our oceans annually. It's about eight million ton — and researchers warn that the cumulative amount could increase more than 10-fold in the next decade unless the international community improves its waste management practices.

You may not think much of a plastic grocery bag flying past you on the beach, but over time, all those bags and bottles and packaging start to add up.

Jenna Jambeck from the University of Georgia in Athens, along with scientists from the U.S. and Australia, studied the populations living within 50 km of coastlines worldwide and developed models to estimate their annual contributions to plastic in the ocean.

These scientists identified three categories that can help provide information about plastics polluting the oceans:

  1. The mass of waste generated per capita annually
  2. The percentage of waste that is plastic
  3. The percentage of plastic waste that has the potential to enter the ocean as debris

According to their estimates, 99.5 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in coastal regions in 2010 and 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entered the ocean in 2010. That's 1.7 to 4.6% of the total plastic waste generated by the countries.

"Our estimate of 8 million metric tons going into the oceans in 2010 is equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world," said Jambeck, in a press release. "This annual input increases each year, so our estimate for 2015 is about 9.1 million metric tons."

However, as staggering as this number is, it's likely still a very modest estimate — as it only represents plastics that are buoyant in seawater, which accounts for only about half of plastic production in North America and two-thirds of plastic in the U.S. waste stream.

"In 2025, the annual input would be about twice the 2010 input, or 10 bags full of plastic per foot of coastline," she said. "So the cumulative input by 2025 would equal 155 million metric tons."

If that sounds catastrophic, well, unfortunately, it is. But hopefully, this estimate helps us understand the gravity of the situation. And, by conducting this study, the authors have developed a model that can help us figure out strategies to reduce plastic waste input into the oceans.

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