World’s Oceans are 0.000000000000018% Plastic

Sounds terrible, eh?

The world’s oceans may contain about 10 times more plastic than the most recent studies suggest.

The new figure estimates that the oceans hold more than 250,000 tons of trash, a number vastly different from a past estimate,

Mass of world’s oceans from here.

My calculator doesn’t have enough zeros for this so that percentage might be wrong.

Parts per trillion contamination though, scary, eh?

31 thoughts on “World’s Oceans are 0.000000000000018% Plastic”

  1. bloke (not) in spain

    Oh, it’s much better if you work it out against surface area. About 700gms/km2. Makes the chances of spotting a plastic bag on a sea voyage to New York about…evens

  2. Well, it’s bad and the (unobtainable) ideal amount is zero, but what I don’t understand about the plastic waste in oceans bellyaching is that it means we must ban plastic bags. What I want to know is how they get there. Is it all blown off beaches, tipped over the side of container ships, or illegally dumped? Rather, what proportion is assignable to each?

    My guess is it’s mostly illegal dumping, in which case that’s the place to start, isn’t it? Rather than restricting consumer access to such products? And then banning merchant vessels from carrying ready meals with plastic trays.

  3. Most of the carriers they give out barely make it home so it is a mystery how they make it to the mid-Atlantic.

  4. See article by Willis Eschenbach on WUWT for an interesting read. He says that, although it’s a bad thing ™ to throw plastics willy nilly into the seas, it’s not nearly as bad as many other bad things. It’s a very small amount relative to the seas (I make it about 5E-13) and does make a nice substrate for things to live on.

  5. Quite tiny amounts of plastic can poison fish etc. You wouldn’t want to have that percentage of cyanide scattered among bread-making flour and as for that % of plutonium …
    Littering is objectionable in the first place, littering with plastic bags just a bit worse. Take your litter home.
    It’s all utterly unnecessary – plastic bags are just laziness. Brown paper bags are perfectly adequate for most things.
    OK the headline is just attention-grabbing and changing an estimate makes no difference whatysoever to reality but there is no need (and very, very rarely any excuse) for litter.

  6. bloke (not) in spain

    “You wouldn’t want to have that percentage of cyanide scattered among bread-making flour”
    Be very surprised if there wasn’t 0.000000000000018% cyanide scattered amongst bread-making flower.
    Having worked with cyanide, wouldn’t bother me if you knocked a few of the noughts out either.
    Never could remember to wash my hands before eating sandwiches. Regrettably, I’m still here.

  7. Bloke in Costa Rica

    The mass of the Pacific Ocean is about 700 quadrillion tons. Total mass of world oceans is around 1.3 quintillion tons (1.3 10^21 kg). So 250 thousand tons is about 190 parts per quadrillion. These are homoeopathic quantities.

  8. Bloke in Costa Rica

    All the carrier bags I get are oxybiodegradable anyway, so they only spend a year or so in an aerobic environment with plenty of UV (i.e. outdoors) before vanishing.

  9. I’ve never seen any convincing pictures of that famous gyre in the North Pacific that is supposed to suck in all the plastic trash.

    If it exists it would certainly make clean up easier. Or am I just waiting for the Bermuda triangle to go “ding”?

  10. It’s all utterly unnecessary – plastic bags are just laziness. Brown paper bags are perfectly adequate for most things.

    I use carrier bags for 2 things:

    1) Carrying heavy-ish shopping home in 3-4 bags; and
    2) Wrapping around shoes when I stick them in a suitcase.

    Paper bags are utter shite for both applications. How using plastic bags equates to laziness is anyone’s guess.

  11. @ Tim Newman
    Are you too young to remember shopping baskets, string bags, jute bags …?
    You can wrap shoes in newspaper to put them in a suitcase (of course paper bags don’t work because they are too small),
    Someone might think from your comment that we totally failed to manage before plastic bags were introduced. That bears no relation to reality

  12. @ Ian B
    In 60+ years of shopping I think that I have had a paper break down and collapse in the rain once (well maybe twice). After I get them home and start unpacking then wet paper bags start disintegrating but what does that matter?

  13. Are you too young to remember shopping baskets, string bags, jute bags …?

    No, but I remember why they got phased out in favour of carrier bags. And then I saw the same thing happen 20 years later in Russia.

    You can wrap shoes in newspaper to put them in a suitcase

    Firstly, yes: but it is still better to use a plastic bag. It stays wrapped even when you are rummaging around in your bag, and it doesn’t matter if they’re wet.

    Secondly, solutions which involve newspaper are likely to be unattractive to those of us with iPads. I don’t think I’ve had a newspaper in my place for years.

    Someone might think from your comment that we totally failed to manage before plastic bags were introduced. That bears no relation to reality

    No, somebody might think that plastic bags are an improvement on what went before, as defined by their overwhelming popularity. We could manage without cotton, as we once did before, but it wouldn’t be an improvement would it?

  14. I’m not quite as old a salt as FE (a mere 35 years) – but he’s correct – if you get caught dumping from a ship – it’s painful – the fines are enormous.

    In some places however they don’t give a toss …. most of Africa / Middle East f’rinstance – and the loony EU recycling / waste directive has been bonanza time for the Mafia in Italy.

    That the greenies jump on it as another stick to beat us all with should be tempered with who’s doing the dumping? and – IMO they will definitely play the waycism card…. – taking a look at what is actually going on will expose corruption, woeful incompetence / shortcomings in the gubmint agencies paid handsomely to supposedly be “controlling waste” which afaics is an oxymoron ?.

  15. Another way of putting it:
    It’s 0.0167% of shipping tonnage
    It’s 0.00278% of annual cargo movements.

    Given that the plastic has built up over many years I’m somewhat surprised the proportions are so low.

  16. (1) Assuming that because a number is small it can’t be important is just a logical error.

    (2) Basing your calculation of the whole volume of the ocean is pretty silly given that the plastic in issue floats. I’ll grant you that there is an element of arbitrariness in using the top 10m or the top 150m, say, but it’s better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.

  17. @Tim Newman
    Puuting wet things in plastic bags encourages them to stink. My parents bought some of the earliest plastic mackintoshes when we went walking in the Highlands (I was never totally convinced) so I can tell you that wet plastic swiftly stinks. We soon learned to air it but in England in winter that is not easy./

  18. So Much for Subtlety

    Bloke in Costa Rica – “All the carrier bags I get are oxybiodegradable anyway, so they only spend a year or so in an aerobic environment with plenty of UV (i.e. outdoors) before vanishing.”

    I like to think of myself as a conservationist from before it was fashionable – from before it became a shelter for people who thought Pol Pot was on to something. So for me, even one plastic bag in the ocean is one too many. Especially as it is so unnecessary. Plastic bags are great. They are convenient, useful – and as Tim N says, vital for things like putting your shoe in when you fly. But why aren’t they all biodegradable? I used to shop at the Co-op (OK, I am not proud) and their bags broke up nicely.

    I would guess this is largely a Third World problem now. I get angry when I see Third World fishermen have lunch and then throw their containers over the side. They do not have the waste-collection traps in storm water drains and the like. But instead of trying to send us back to the Dark Ages, perhaps we could just encourage everyone on the planet to use a biodegradable plastic bag?

    This is not like climate change. There are simple and cheap options available.

  19. bloke (not) in spain

    “How does cyanide get into bread-making flour?”
    At 1.8e -14% not very often, I’d imagine. A miller eating cherries & spitting the pits into the hopper’d about do it. Big enough silo. But lots of other plants contain cyanide. I know cassava does. Why you don’t boil it with the lid on. You don’t eat tapioca, John? Wouldn’t be surprised if you’d have to treat wheat to get the cyanide content down to that level. Baking’d probably manage it.
    These zeros after the point really make a difference, don’t they?

    It is a bit of a mystery, this phobia about plastic bags. As BiCR says, it’s not as if they’re particularly durable. You only have use one to store stuff in the garden to find out how un-durable they are. I used to compost them along with the rest of the kitchen waste. They certainly degrade faster than orange peel.

  20. Puuting wet things in plastic bags encourages them to stink.

    Which is why I take my shoes out of the plastic bag when I arrive at my destination. I’m still waiting to hear how wrapping them in newspaper (which I’d have to buy especially) is an improvement.

  21. Although as a percentage the plastic might not be such a problem.
    It does concentrate (it is in suspension not solution).
    I have seen deserted beaches in Choco Colombia covered with plastic washed up from the sea. Of course some animals think plastic is food and die from eating it e.g. Albatross and Turtles.
    In this case figures are not very helpful.

  22. I’m sure the amount of plastic in the oceans may be miniscule as a percentage of the total volume of water but if you can see thousands of coke bottles bobbing up an down as far as the eye can see then that is hardly ideal.

  23. The stuff must be distributed very unevenly around the oceans and beaches. So getting an accurate estimate must be very difficult.

    In fact, if I considered the source of the study sufficiently authoritative I’d have accepted any figure from 25 thousand to 25 million tons.

    Given that it’s in suspension at shallow depths it would be easy for some greenies to hook up an array of air lifts and suck out lots of it, with pictures to show to shame the world. But they haven’t. So I suspect there’s less of it than alleged.

  24. Apparently Tim W has confused tons with kilograms, so he’s out by a factor of a thousand. Which doesn’t really matter, because whatever the number it’s irrelevant to gauging the severity of the problem.

  25. Whatever the numbers are, it’s a fact that most West-facing beaches in Scotland and the Islands are liberally scattered (sometimes “heaped” would be the word) with plastic litter of one sort and another.

    It isn’t pleasant to look at, and does occasionally injure the wildlife.

    So although we can deplore the extremism of the green blob, and especially the fact that they’re just using this as a lever to get more power/raise more taxes/keep themselves in a cushy number etc etc, this doesn’t mean that there is no problem at all.

  26. Notwithstanding bloke in france’s scepticism about the ocean currents, it is the case that they do cause the rubbish to collect (it’s simple fluid dynamics with a little bit of pure maths thrown in on the side), and that is partly why the (apparently) tiny proportion can still be a bad issue: you end up with a localised problem which, because of those same ocean currents, spreads quite widely.

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