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Earth Science

Ninety-Nine Percent of the Ocean's Plastic Is Missing 304

Posted by samzenpus
from the In-his-plastic-house-at-R'lyeh-dead-Cthulhu-waits-dreaming dept.
sciencehabit writes Millions of tons. That's how much plastic should be floating in the world's oceans, given our ubiquitous use of the stuff. But a new study (abstract) finds that 99% of this plastic is missing. One disturbing possibility: Fish are eating it. If that's the case, "there is potential for this plastic to enter the global ocean food web," says Carlos Duarte, an oceanographer at the University of Western Australia, Crawley. "And we are part of this food web."
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Ninety-Nine Percent of the Ocean's Plastic Is Missing

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 30, 2014 @05:38PM (#47354141)
    Is that water, the ultimate solvent -- or perhaps bacteria -- are breaking down the plastics back into it's components, and the ocean (much like the oil from the BP spill) is taking care of itself.

    Naw, couldn't be. Go ahead and panic, hippies!
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 30, 2014 @05:48PM (#47354251)

      Is that water, the ultimate solvent -- or perhaps bacteria -- are breaking down the plastics back into it's components

      Of the two, I'd go with bacteria, given that the bottled water aisle of my grocery store strongly suggests that water is a little less ultimate than you imply.

      • by mysidia (191772)

        Of the two, I'd go with bacteria, given that the bottled water aisle of my grocery store strongly suggests that water is a little less ultimate than you imply.

        The water in the ocean has much salt, however... Also. in the grocery store; the water is only on one side of the bottle, and there's not enough of it to make strong currents.

        • The water in the ocean has much salt, however... Also. in the grocery store; the water is only on one side of the bottle, and there's not enough of it to make strong currents.

          Ah... but in the ocean, there IS [postimg.org].

      • by Penguinisto (415985) on Monday June 30, 2014 @06:16PM (#47354517) Journal

        ...given that the bottled water aisle of my grocery store strongly suggests that water is a little less ultimate than you imply.

        Funny you should mention that, because the reason most bottled water has an expiration date isn't that water goes bad, but because the plastics' volatile components in the bottle leach into the water (which is why everyone freaked out over BPE's awhile back).

        Another theory? stuff clings to the plastic and sinks it. Having lived on the Oregon coast, I found it rather rare that something would wash up on the shore which didn't carry barnacles, seaweed, algae, and other stuff that clung to it - all of it using the bit of flotsam as a miniature base of operations from which to spend one's lifespan. Eventually so much stuff clings to it that any buoyancy the plastic once had is negated by the weight of the lifeforms and suchlike clinging to it.

        Hell, even a sealed glass bottle eventually does this, as algae sticks to outside of it, which in turn attracts sand... the stuff dries like glue, BTW.

        One other reason I can think of, speaking of which - did they account for all the stuff that eventually washes up on shore somewhere? I suspect they had to have, but maybe they underestimated it?

      • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Monday June 30, 2014 @06:19PM (#47354549) Homepage

        Water is typically considered to be theuniversal solvent [about.com] rather than the 'ultimate' solvent. But the chemical reactions might take millennia. It's more likely that degradation is due to a combination of bacteria and perhaps UV light or other reactive chemical processes.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Do you know why those water bottles have expiration dates?

        It is because the plastic slowly leaks into the water, and that date is when current health regulations state that there would be too much plastic in the water for humans to safely consume it.

      • Your bottled water neither contains high amounts of salt, nor is it exposed to fairly high levels of sunlight and UV radiation.
      • by kuzb (724081)

        How much incredibly mineral and bacteria rich salt water do we bottle exactly?

      • I believe the GP meant to say water is the "universal solvent", meaning anything will dissolve in it given enough time. As to missing plastic, there is no beach on the planet where you can pick up a handful of sand that does not contain tiny particles of plastic, it's already in the food chain since plastic dust is everywhere. I understand that waste plastic is a huge problem for wildlife but once it has degraded into dust and dispersed it appears to be benign from an environmental POV.

        Aside from that, m
        • Aside from that, most sausage skins in the western world are made from plastic, it's been that way for decades.

          Godmanit!

          Don't eat the chicken skin.

          Don't eat the french fried potaters.

          Now the sausage skin falls out of favor, too? Cheese and rice... it's beginning to look like I can either live fifty years like a medieval king, or 80 like a monk.

      • by rtb61 (674572)

        Far more logical is this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G... [wikipedia.org]. All that hard glass, basically broken bottles ground smooth, many many far finer fragments buried into the sand below. Plastic is a whole lot software than glass so it can get ground up much faster, add in brittling from UV exposure, the shorelines of the world, lots of sun and surf and we end up with a new kind of sand. The plastic that is caught in vegetation off the shore line is far more visible.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 30, 2014 @05:48PM (#47354257)

      According to some of the stuff you can see here based on observations of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch [wikipedia.org], plastic only degrades into tinier plastic pieces, right down to molecules. It's already in the food chain and has been for decades.

    • by ganjadude (952775) on Monday June 30, 2014 @05:49PM (#47354273) Homepage
      no no no, couldnt be, we have to go with the scary version, we cant go using reasonable options, how will anyone get funding for research???
      • by aliquis (678370)

        How someone made a chart comparing the amount of plastic in the ocean and the number of IE6 installs? Maybe there's some correlation there?

      • by Cl1mh4224rd (265427) on Monday June 30, 2014 @07:50PM (#47355135)

        no no no, couldnt be, we have to go with the scary version, we cant go using reasonable options, how will anyone get funding for research???

        I find this to be quite bizarre; this notion that all "scary" alternatives are somehow unreasonable and only non-scary alternatives qualify as reasonable.

    • by raydobbs (99133)

      This very well could be - we (you and I) basically came up with the same thought. With so little we know about the oceans of Earth, there could be a vast number of reasons the plastics we littered into the oceans have not turned up as pristine trash that lasts forever and ever. It could be fish, it could be other marine animals, it could be micro-organisms, it could also be some other unexplained process. Racing to panic about it being in the foot supply (without proof) is a little premature.

      • by gbjbaanb (229885) on Monday June 30, 2014 @06:02PM (#47354405)

        yeah, its almost certainly not the fish, it must be the micro-organisms.

        Now, if I can only think.. what eats the micro-organisms in the oceans?

        Of course its in the fucking food supply. You shit in the ocean, something eats it and we end up eating that. If we're lucky its only shit which is a naturally bio-degradable food source for plants. If we're unlucky, its the various poisons we dumped in there too, 'cos it was cheaper than processing them.

    • Millions of tons. That's how much plastic should be floating in the world's oceans...

      Um, no, it shouldn't be in the ocean at all... maybe there have been vast over estimates of how much was there to begin with. After all, nobody should be putting it there on purpose.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Tailhook (98486)

        maybe there have been vast over estimates of how much was there to begin with

        Bingo. The problem probably isn't hippies underestimating the ability of the oceans to consume plastic. The problem is probably just hippies wildly overestimating the quantity of plastic escaping trash collection/recycling systems.

        But this simple hypothesis won't be welcome among hippies because it fails to comport with the contaminated planet narrative, so it won't be considered or analyzed, and Obama help anyone among the researchers that dares to suggest it. Instead, theories about contamination of th

    • by Trillan (597339)

      If water is that good at dissolving plastic we're all in a lot of trouble. As for a new, plastic-eating bacteria? That's nothing to be concerned about at all!

      Seriously, fish eating it terrible. But it is probably the least bad alternative, unless we're going to include "space aliens carefully harvesting it, while leaving sea life alone" on the list of theories.

      Hippie doesn't usually extend to "caring at all."

    • by msauve (701917)
      Fish which aren't eaten, die or rot, which would release the plastic. Some amount would just be released in fish poo (or does it simply not get passed?). This article mentions the possibility that it sinks to the ocean floor in poo. All of that would end up back in the ocean.

      If it's in the food chain, much of it should get concentrated near the top. How many pounds of plastic in an average shark's belly to sequester "millions of tons" of plastic?

      There's also the fact that they may simply be looking in th
    • by quantaman (517394) on Monday June 30, 2014 @06:51PM (#47354745)

      Is that water, the ultimate solvent -- or perhaps bacteria -- are breaking down the plastics back into it's components, and the ocean (much like the oil from the BP spill) is taking care of itself.

      Naw, couldn't be. Go ahead and panic, hippies!

      Yeah, and everyone know that broken down oil was completely [yahoo.com] harmless [aljazeera.com].

      Whatever components that plastic is breaking down into it likely contains a lot of molecules that aren't found in nature. When those molecules enter an organism there's no telling what the hell they're going to do.

      I don't understand this fantasy that some people cling to that we can dump endless streams of random crap into the environment and mother nature will just magically take care of it with no consequence. People would sure as hell notice if you started dumping garbage into a lake and screwing up a beach where people swim once a week, why do you think the things that actually live in the polluted water won't be affected?

      • We don't have a clue as to what breaks down or how well it breaks down or the time involved. Tire rubber is one example. Rubber is shed in a dust like form as tires contact the road. Scientists were wondering about the build up of powdered rubber near major roads. It turns out that most if it vanishes and the conclusion was that bacteria were digesting the synthetic, tire rubber. Matter of fact i would think that pulverized, waste, plastic would be a good material as an admixture for roa
    • by DeathElk (883654)

      GREAT! That means we can fill the world with 99 times more useless plastic shit! And fuck entire ecosystems while we're at it! Jolly good.

    • There was an earlier story about how sand at beaches is actually a large (and growing) percentage plastic.

  • by AnOnyxMouseCoward (3693517) on Monday June 30, 2014 @05:41PM (#47354167)
    Wait. Isn't Slashdot supposed to link me to articles? I know no one RTFA, but if there isn't any link at all and just a blurb, what's the point?
    • by Ynot_82 (1023749) on Monday June 30, 2014 @05:42PM (#47354181)

      fish ate it

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 30, 2014 @06:01PM (#47354403)

        plastiglomerates

        http://news.sciencemag.org/earth/2014/06/rocks-made-plastic-found-hawaiian-beach

        Scientists say a new type of rock cobbled together from plastic, volcanic rock, beach sand, seashells, and corals has begun forming on the shores of Hawaii.

        The discovery adds to the debate about whether humanity’s heavy hand in natural processes warrants the formal declaration of a new epoch of Earth history, the Anthropocene, says paleontologist Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the study. Plastics in general are so pervasive that they’ve been documented in a number of surprising places, including ingested in wildlife and on the sea floor. The mass of plastic produced since 1950 is close to 6 billion metric tons, enough to bundle the entire planet in plastic wrap. Combine plastic’s abundance with its persistence in the environment, and there’s a good chance it’ll get into the fossil record, Zalasiewicz says. “Plastics, including plastiglomerates, would be one of the key markers by which people could recognize the beginning of the Anthropocene.”

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by ColdWetDog (752185)

          Except these conglomerates were formed by beach humans burning wood and trash and plastic and having the latter melt into the rock. Unless the fish (or other aquatic denizens) are starting fires somewhere, it's not likely to be a general mechanism.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      http://news.sciencemag.org/environment/2014/06/ninety-nine-percent-oceans-plastic-missing

    • not a link but... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by s.petry (762400) on Monday June 30, 2014 @06:56PM (#47354767)

      Hypothetical stuff causes hypothetical problems. Wow, I would have never thunk it! Let the paranoia.. er fun begin!

      Before you claim troll show me where in the non-existent TFA (yes, I read this one [sciencemag.org]) they come up with: 1) Their estimated "millions of tons". 2) How many "millions" are they claiming. 3) Why the only possible explanation is that fish are eating it (so now it's in your food). Nope, I'm not going to wait. They use a 1970 study that showed .1% of plastic washes into the ocean. This was the same time that we had TV commercials with American Indian's crying on TV because people on average were dumping their shit everywhere. We also had everyone pumping out CFCs for everything in a can.

      I agree that "The Great Pacific Garbage Dump" is a huge problem, and know that the same problems exist in every ocean. Fantastic theories (or fantasy depending on your perspective) requires evidence, and there is none to back TFA. None of this addresses the real problems causing dumping (like greed and a lack of enforced regulation, or wars).

      The last paragraph of TFA says it all. "We really don’t know what this plastic is doing.” So the point of the article telling people fish are eating the plastic is what exactly?

    • by Nimey (114278)

      Why? Nobody reads them anyway.

  • by EmperorOfCanada (1332175) on Monday June 30, 2014 @05:42PM (#47354185)
    Plastic has lots of energy (try burning it) and thus could be a food source in and of itself. Thus there could be a bacteria that is eating it. Where this is disturbing is that we like to put useful plastic things into the water such as fibreglass boats. Could there be a bacteria evolving that will start corroding our plastics?

    Also the fish that eat it may now have a gut bacteria that will break it down.

    Whatever the truth turns out to be I suspect it will be fascinating!
    • by mpe (36238)
      Plastic has lots of energy (try burning it) and thus could be a food source in and of itself. Thus there could be a bacteria that is eating it.

      There isn't one thing called "plastic" anyway. Some types are even intended to be "bio-degradable".

      Also the fish that eat it may now have a gut bacteria that will break it down.

      Plenty of animals eat all sorts of things that they cannot digest at all. Apparently beta glucose polysaccarides are ment to be good for humans to eat. Even in quanities beyond the abili
      • I suspect that if a bacteria managed to create an enzyme or whatnot that could break down one kind of plastic that it might not be too many mutations away from similar types of plastic. And if bacteria could figure out one they could probably figure out them all.
    • by iggymanz (596061)

      of course it is a food source, this is why the most dire of predictions about certain catastrophic oil spills didn't happen (yes, they were very bad anyway). there are bacteria that eat petroleum, there are bacteria that can eat petroleum products. of course, this could still be a food chain problem if larger organisms consume the bacteria and are poisoned or otherwise sickened or malnourished.

      also, maybe the amount of plastic in land fills vs. ocean is underestimated.

    • Fiberglass isn't plastic. It's glass fibers.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 30, 2014 @05:45PM (#47354217)

    The tiny plastic beads and broken down bits end up in fish flesh, this has been established.

    http://www.fastcoexist.com/3020951/these-big-eyed-fish-are-vacuuming-up-our-plastic-pollution-at-night
    Plenty of information on this out there. 19% of all fish caught in a single survey in Hawaii had plastic in the bellies.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 30, 2014 @05:47PM (#47354241)

    tic.

  • meh (Score:4, Informative)

    by waddgodd (34934) on Monday June 30, 2014 @05:50PM (#47354287) Homepage Journal

    Whoever thinks that plastic isn't already part of the global food web hasn't eaten at a McDonalds recently

    • Tell me about it. The latest happy meal toys taste great!

    • by bobbied (2522392)

      Whoever thinks that plastic isn't already part of the global food web hasn't eaten at a McDonalds recently

      Didn't they move from Styrofoam to paper/cardboard years ago? MMMMM.. Salty greasy cardboard....

  • assume it's dark (Score:2, Informative)

    by slew (2918)

    When you don't have an answer for the whereabouts of 90+% of the stuff your scientific theory calls for, call it dark and get some grant money to find it...

    • Well . . . it looks like you solved it then. On the one hand, we have matter that is missing, in the oceans. And on the other hand, we have the cosmos, where there seems to be too much matter. So obviously Occam's Lady-Shave indicates that the plastic in the oceans is being converted into the dark matter in outer space!

      Furthermore, since there is much more dark matter than the lost plastic on our planet . . . there must be other planets with intelligent life producing plastic that get's lost in their oc

    • by bobbied (2522392)
      Ahhh... That doesn't matter!
    • by Megane (129182)
      Sure, let's call it "dark plastic". I think it's gone to the same place as the universe's missing dark matter.
  • If it floats in water, it is going to get hit by perpetual exposure to UV radiation.

    The same way sailors get sun burnt very quickly. UV gets reflected by water, enlarging the exposure. UV tears apart molecular bonds, which is why, for example, the ozone layer is so important.
    • by geekoid (135745)

      Except it isn't just about floating, it's about the plastic at different depths. Not all plastic floats on the surface of the water.

  • Article Link Here. (Score:5, Informative)

    by sehlat (180760) on Monday June 30, 2014 @06:06PM (#47354439)

    Here's the "Science" magazine page:

    http://news.sciencemag.org/env... [sciencemag.org]

    and here's the referenced paper:

    http://www.pnas.org/content/ea... [pnas.org]

    • by k6mfw (1182893) on Monday June 30, 2014 @07:46PM (#47355111)
      thanks for posting link, I actually RTFA. An interesting mention was,
      "What’s more, both Davison and Law say there are a number of other potential places the plastic could be ending up. It could be washing ashore, and a lot of it could be degrading into pieces too small to be detected. Another possibility is that organisms sticking to and growing on the plastic are dragging the junk beneath the ocean’s surface, either suspending it in the water column or sinking it all the way to the sea floor. Microbes may even be eating the stuff."
  • by netsavior (627338) on Monday June 30, 2014 @06:10PM (#47354469)
    "It wanted plastic"
    George Carlin [youtube.com]
    • by jxander (2605655)

      Welcome to the new paradigm. The Earth plus plastic

      Honestly, while I always agreed with the premise, it seems to have taken much less time than I would have thought.

  • Fish also eat sand and lots of other things. It passes through them. You are the same way. Not everything you eat is nutritious or digested. You poop, right!?!

    Or perhaps it settles to the bottom of the sea and future scientists will call it the plastacine boundary which occurred just at the time of the great extinction number nine, number nine, number nine...

  • by mveloso (325617) on Monday June 30, 2014 @06:30PM (#47354609)

    Oceanographers are at a loss to explain the lack of plastic floating in our oceans. "Where the fuck did it go?" asked Omar Roberts, head of oceanography at the Skips Institute. "We've thrown shit-tons of plastic into the ocean. Where is it?"

    Omar, though, has a theory. "The Kraken ate it. We're feeding the fucking Kraken. Jeeeesus!"

  • marine animals are ingesting it with or instead of their food. If so, is it possible some species will evolve to digest plastic and metabolize it? Will that make those creatures toxic to humans?

    • by geekoid (135745)

      A fish the evolves to get it's energy from plastic. Wow, that would be kinds cool. Plus we could duplicated it on a larger scale and get energy from plastic efficiently.

  • It's not really a food "web". It's more like a series of tubes, you see...
  • Null hypothesis (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The original estimate was wrong.

    Of course, this doesn't fit with the Enviro-Disaster meme that every new piece of information should headline with 'It's worse than we thought!'.

  • In this [youtube.com] educational video.
  • It's becoming plastiglomerate! See: http://www.geosociety.org/gsat... [geosociety.org]

  • You know (Score:4, Informative)

    by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland.yahoo@com> on Monday June 30, 2014 @07:28PM (#47354987) Homepage Journal

    the amount of plastic in the ocean numbers have always been riddle by flaws. I don't me out of bounds from error bars, I mean flaws. Everything from the 'garbage Island, to report of large amount of underwater plastic no one can seem to find.

  • First, if fish (or other marine animals) were eating the plastic (and there is a lot of evidence that they are) then they would also be starving to death (as they can't digest the plastic, and it fills up their digestive systems). When they die, the plastic would be returned to the ocean, and we would see it in our assays. So I don't think that the plastic getting eaten is the obvious solution.

    Second, as anyone who has gotten sunburned while swimming knows, water doesn't block ultraviolet light very effecti

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