Plastic pollution: World’s oceans may have more than double the amount of tiny plastic particles than scientists thought

Using finer nets, scientists catch double the number of microplastic particles

There might be more than double the amount of tiny plastic particles in the world’s oceans than previously thought.

A team of UK scientists led by the Plymouth Marine Laboratory collected 2.5 times more plastic from samples of US and UK coastal waters, by using finer mesh nets than scientists traditionally choose.

Compared to coarse sampling nets, the team gathered ten times more plastic particles.

“Typically, scientists use specialized nets to sieve out microplastics from the sea surface,” explained co-lead author Dr Matthew Cole. “Normally these nets are quite coarse so they don’t get clogged up with microscopic plants and animals that live in the sea, but it also means they’re unable to sieve out the very smallest plastics that are present.”

Plastic oceans

The findings, published in the journal Environmental Pollution, could have global implications for estimates of the amount of microplastics floating in the oceans. Previous studies using standard sampling nets suggest there are between 5-50 trillion particles in the world’s waters.

Using the findings from the finer nets as a guide, the team believes the real figure could be between 12.5 and 125 trillion particles, or more than 3,700 microplastic particles per cubic metre. That is more plastic particles than you would find plankton in the same volume of ocean water, the scientists said.

This could mean plastic poses a far greater risk to marine life than previously thought, with a much increased risk the plastic will travel up the food chain and into humans.

Dr Ceri Lewis, author on this study and associate professor in marine biology at the University of Exeter, said: “Understanding more about the smaller microplastics present in the ocean is important as it is these smaller particles that are more likely to be ingested by the small marine animals, the zooplankton, that form the basis of marine food webs.”


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