The internet abounds with articles about massive "islands" of plastic floating around in the middle of the ocean. This narrative conjures up images of trash piles congregated in certain locations, leaving the rest of the sea clear of debris.
But the reality is much grimmer.
A map from New Zealand–based data visualization firm Dumpark, reminds us that the ocean's plastic is not centralized, but rather is universally prevalent in tiny, confetti-like pieces.
Each white dot in the map above represents 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of plastic. This adds up to 593 million pounds of plastic floating on our oceans’ surfaces — and a big problem for cleanup efforts.
From afar, the map seems to show that plastics in the ocean are giant floating landfills. "But as you zoom in," says map researcher Laurent Lebreton, "you realize the complexity of the issue: The ocean is quite a vast surface, and similar to a starry night, there are a lot of little bright dots."
So what does this mean?
All the trash in the ocean could circle the Earth 425 times
The data used to build this map comes from a 2014 paper called "Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans," by oceanographer Marcus Eriksen.
Over a period of six years (2007 to 2013), Eriksen and a team of researchers went on 24 nautical expeditions across all five of the sea’s major gyres (systems of circular ocean currents caused by wind patterns and the rotation of the Earth). Along the way, they collected 680 hauls of plastic from the ocean’s surface, made 891 visual assessments, then created a statistical model to estimate the overall scope of plastic presence in the water.
Their conclusion: There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating in our oceans — enough to circulate the Earth’s equator 425 times. All together, the combined weight of plastic in the ocean amounts to more than 38,000 African elephants.
"There were stacks and stacks of them:" how flip-flops pollute the oceans
Eriksen and his colleagues wanted to understand not just how much plastic there was in the ocean but also what types of plastic were the most common.
"We found an astounding number of those little balls in deodorant roll-ons," he says. "The bigger items tend to be solid plastic: toothbrushes, army men, bouncy balls, milk jugs, buckets..."
In one spot near Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, Eriksen spotted thousands of flip-flops that had likely carried over from the waters of Southeastern Asia. "There were just stacks and stacks of them," he says. "I could’ve picked up 10,000 in an hour."
But the vast majority of the plastic in our oceans is what we can’t see.
The researchers categorized all plastics they found into four major size classes. Of the 5.25 trillion particles Eriksen’s team estimates, 92 percent are microplastics — broken-down bits of larger plastic items, or things like microbeads from facial scrubs.
"Most of these microplastics are so small you can’t really tell what they are," Eriksen says. "You drag a net through the ocean and come up with a handful of plastic confetti — particles the size of fish food."
The North Pacific is the plastic capital of the sea
For their study, Eriksen and his team surveyed five different ocean regions: the Pacific (North and South), Atlantic (North and South), and the Mediterranean. With 192.8 million pounds of plastic (or 2 trillion individual pieces), the North Pacific represented nearly one-third of plastic pollution in all oceans.
The fishing industry is partly to blame for this.
"The North Pacific is a big fishing region — you’ll find a lot of buoys, nets, and gear designed to last out there," Eriksen says. "In particular, it all comes to roost in an eastern garbage patch between Hawaii and California."
But Eriksen’s study solely focuses on plastics found on the ocean’s surface. Lurking under water is a much graver picture.
In a 2015 study, University of Georgia researcher Jenna Jambeck analyzed 192 countries’ plastic consumption and waste management systems, determining that between 8 trillion and 20 trillion pounds of trash leaves our shores each year. Another estimate suggest that up to 70 percent of this trash sinks to the ocean floor. Quite literally, Eriksen’s estimates just scrape the surface of what’s out there.
A pertinent question remains: How can we mitigate the amount of plastic that continues to go into our oceans?
"The plastic industry suggests the only solution is through our own efforts — recycling, incineration, responsible personal waste management," says Eriksen. "But the reality is that the industry itself needs a design overhaul. They should strive to recover 100 percent of their products, or make them 100 percent environmentally harmless."