X-ray of the garbage that reaches the oceans: 80% is plastic

Two studies coordinated by researchers from the University of Cdiz provide the first global diagnosis of the composition of garbage dumped in rivers and seas.

Garbage collection on the coast of Jakarta, IndonesiaWilly Kurniawa / REUTERS

The accumulation of garbage in the oceans poses one of the great challenges of our time, especially with regard to plastic waste. Each year, more than 400 million tons of this material are produced, a figure that at the current rate will double by 2050. Today most of this huge quantity that reaches the market has a very limited life (80% will become waste a year after its manufacture) and a significant part threatens to end up polluting rivers and seas around the planet.

The rapid deterioration of the situation forces society to look for initiatives capable of meeting this challenge and, although scientific studies have multiplied in the last decade, precise information on the origin and nature of garbage in the oceans is still scarce, so that precise knowledge is lacking to guide and coordinate action plans. Researchers from the University of Cdiz publish this Thursday in the magazine Nature Sustainabilitythe first global diagnosis to put into figures the origin and composition of the garbage dumped in the ocean.

“We have combined various methodologies to achieve the proportions of each type of plastic in various settings around the world”, explains Andrs Czar, professor at the University of Cdiz and coordinator of the study that has had the support of the Aid to Research Teams of the BBVA Foundation

According to scientists, around 80% of the waste that reaches the ocean is plastic, It is followed -by far- by metal, glass, fabrics, paper and processed wood. The highest proportion of plastic is found in surface waters (95%), followed by coasts (83%) and riverbeds (49%). On the other hand, of the more than 100 product categories used in the analysis, a dozen stand as responsible for three-quarters of the total.

Specifically, waste from outdoor consumption activities (mainly food and beverages to take away) predominate; single-use bags, bottles, food containers and wrappers are the most polluting products, accounting for almost half of all the objects found alone.

Although the study was based on data collected before the pandemic, articles of medical and / or hygiene origin already appear to be particularly abundant on the seabed near the coast, something that scientists attribute mainly to flushing from toilets.

Reduce the consumption

Although several countries already have action plans against plastic, researchers from the Andalusian university consider that they are limited. “Restrictions on the use of plastic items such as straws, ear buds and drink stirrers, while correct, still do not address the main problem,” warns Andrs Czar, who advocates for prohibition of plastic products expendable in consumption activities abroad. “Defining which products would fall into this category requires a serious collective reflection”, clarifies Czar, “but in any case it is important to reduce consumption in the open air because that is when the possibility of escape is highest”.

For take-out products deemed essential, the study suggests the application of the so-called “extended producer responsibility” (RPE), along with a refundable deposit fee for consumers. The researchers also emphasize that inland ecosystems have the same responsibility as coastal ones, “an article released anywhere can end up reaching the sea.”

Pollution in rivers

It is precisely in this sense that a second study also published in Nature Sustainability reveals that most of the terrestrial plastic is channeled through small rivers, streams, and surface runoff to coastal fringes. The rivers thus become the main conduits for waste transferred from the interior to the ocean. This second work shows that Europe thus dumps more than 600 million floating macroliters (> 2.5 cm) into the ocean every year and that almost 40% of floating garbage is pieces of plastic (large fragments). The authors believe that many plastic objects begin to fragment in river basins before reaching the ocean through them.

In 2014 Czar and his team presented the first global map of plastic in the ocean, in which they revealed the existence of five large accumulation zones of floating plastic waste, one in the center of each ocean basin. However, 99% of the plastic collected then in the great oceanic accumulations were fragments smaller than 2 cm.

“We were left with a question, where were the bottles, bags, and all those large objects that enter the sea?”, Says Czar. So this time the team looked for large marine litter (more than 2 cm) and found it mainly in coastal areas. “The concentrations of macro-garbage in littorals and coastal bottoms are of the order of 10,000 times higher than the concentrations in the deep bottoms and 100,000 more than in oceanic waters,” he concludes. Microplastics, in contrast, can more easily overcome the waves, be released into the open sea and thus enter the transport circuits of ocean currents.

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