Estimates of plastic in Atlantic ‘massively underestimated’

Estimates of how much plastic has been dumped in the Atlantic Ocean have been “massively underestimated”, experts say.

The mass of so-called invisible microplastics found in the upper waters of the Atlantic is around 12-21m tonnes, new research suggests.

But the figure only represents three types of the most common types of plastic litter in a limited size range.

According to a study published in Nature Communications, it is comparable in magnitude to estimates of all plastic waste that has entered the Atlantic over the past 65 years – 17m tonnes.

This suggests the supply of plastic to the ocean has been substantially underestimated, researchers say.

Read on...

The study focused on polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene, which are commercially most prominent and also the most littered plastic types, according to the experts.

Lead author of the paper, Katsiaryna Pabortsava from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), said: “Previously, we couldn’t balance the mass of floating plastic we observed with the mass we thought had entered the ocean since 1950.

“This is because earlier studies hadn’t been measuring the concentrations of ‘invisible’ microplastic particles beneath the ocean surface.

“Our research is the first to have done this across the entire Atlantic, from the UK to the Falklands.”

Co-author Professor Richard Lampitt, also from the NOC, said: “If we assume that the concentration of microplastics we measured at around 200 metres deep is representative of that in the water mass to the seafloor below with an average depth of about 3,000 metres, then the Atlantic Ocean might hold about 200 million tonnes of plastic litter in this limited polymer type and size category.

“This is much more than is thought to have been supplied.”

The researchers collected seawater samples during the 26th Atlantic Meridional Transect (AMT) expedition in September to November 2016.

They filtered large volumes of seawater at three selected depths in the top 200 metres and detected and identified plastic contaminants using state-of-the-art spectroscopic imaging techniques.

Prof Lampitt said: “In order to determine the dangers of plastic contamination to the environment and to humans we need good estimates of the amount and characteristics of this material, how it enters the ocean, how it degrades and then how toxic it is at these concentrations.

“This paper demonstrates that scientists have had a totally inadequate understanding of even the simplest of these factors, how much is there, and it would seem our estimates of how much is dumped into the ocean has been massively underestimated.”

The work was funded by the EU H2020 AtlantOS programme and the NOC.

The AMT programme was supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council’s Climate Linked Atlantic Sector Science (Class) programme.

We need your help to keep speaking the truth

Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.

Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.

We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.

In return, you get:

* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop

Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.

With your help we can continue:

* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do

We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?

The Canary Support us
  • Show Comments
    1. So, the issues for moving forward must be twofold: how to capture and eliminate the vast quantities that are already blighting our oceans, and how to force companies to aspire to eliminate the necessity of plastic. Both issues are immense! And plastic pollution is merely one of numerous catastrophes facing the planet.

      Any government that then talks about economic growth must be demonstrably unfit for purpose! But we’ll still vote them in because our MSM is also corrupted! Extinction Rebellion; youth and honesty!

    Leave a Reply

    Join the conversation

    Please read our comment moderation policy here.