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Earth Science

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

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


    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.”

  • 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?

  • 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 []) 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 WillKemp ( 1338605 ) on Monday June 30, 2014 @09:03PM (#47355741) Homepage

    A vast amount of this plastic is breaking up into tiny pieces, which then form a new class of plankton plastic plankton [] - and this plastic plankton is being eating by sea creatures along with the phytoplankton and zooplankton which make up their normal diet. Nobody knows what the effects of this will be.

  • by bluefoxlucid ( 723572 ) on Tuesday July 01, 2014 @09:58AM (#47359619) Homepage Journal

    There are only two effects.

    In Modus A, the plastic breaks down in aggressive digestion, potentially poisoning the fish in the short term. This may not inflict major harm due to small amounts entering the fish's diet over time. Then again, it may kill the fish, and provide food to a larger fish or bacteria, which disperse the toxin. The toxins will be less stable by nature--if they're reactive, they're unstable--and will eventually break down to stable, harmless compounds.

    In Modus B, the plastic doesn't break down at any significant speed. Monomers and extremely tiny particles get passed through the food chain, ground up smaller and smaller, but cause no real harm. The plastic could cause physical obstruction, at worst, but only at high concentration.

    Modus B is actually worse, but only marginally. It's the wholly-non-toxic mode.

God helps them that themselves. -- Benjamin Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanac"