Global Trends in Plastic Pollution in the Oceans

A recent NCEAS study (Jambeck et al., 2015) calculated that roughly 8 million metric tons of plastics enters the oceans from the land annually. However, the global amount of plastic floating around the seas has been estimated to be closer to a quarter of a million tons. Where has the rest of the plastic gone?

The discrepancy between the two estimates is problematic. The results of the NCEAS Working Group, “Marine debris: Scale and impact of trash in ocean ecosystems,” recently appearing in Environmental Pollution offers new insights.

The Working Group assessed the global trends of plastic pollution in the ocean using datasets from a 30-year study from Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem Studies (IMARES) on plastics in the stomach contents of Northern Fulmar sea birds in the North Sea and a Woods Hole Sea Education Association (SEA) long-term study (using surface nets) measuring the accumulation of plastic debris in the North-Atlantic Garbage Patch.

Published by the Working Group Principal Investigators, Van Franeker and Law, the research shows a reduction of pre-production plastic pellets in the large oceanic gyres, as reflected in both datasets, while there was variation by no apparent change in the amount of consumer plastic. The reduction in plastic pellets can be considered positive news and an indicator that changes in input of plastics into the ocean are quickly reflected in the environment, even far from the source. However, this does explain where the plastic has gone.


Decreases of industrial plastic granules as percentage of total plastic particles in stomachs of Fulmars from the North Sea (red triangles) and in the North Atlantic gyre (blue circles). Background industrial granules.Seabirds, gyres and global trends in plastic pollution
Jan A. van Franeker, Kara Lavender Law
Environmental Pollution, 2015, DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2015.02.034

Recent Press: Wageningen UR

More information about this project's research, participants, and publications


This work was supported by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, Ocean Conservancy, University of California, Santa Barbara, and the State of California.


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Posted on April 16, 2015