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Recent research reveals that two-thirds of all the buoyant plastic which has been released into the marine environment since the 1950s is being stored across the world’s shorelines as either stranded, settled or buried debris. The researchers suggest that the plastic will eventually find its way into the ocean.

The scientists who conducted this study wanted to find an explanation for the striking discrepancy between the volume of plastic estimated to have found its way into the ocean, versus the amount floating on its surface. Previous estimates put the quantity of floating plastic at over 250,000 tonnes – a considerable amount, however this is only a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of tonnes of plastic believed to have been released into the ocean since the 1950s. Roughly two-thirds of all this plastic has a density lower than sea water, and should therefore be floating. However, it isn’t.

This study has found that much of the floating plastic recovered from the ocean’s surface is decades old, suggesting that the process of degradation takes far too long to account for the missing tonnes. Further, the researchers estimate that 66.8% of all the buoyant plastic released into the marine environment is actually being stored by the world’s coastlines – this translates to between 46.7 to 126.4 million tonnes of plastic. Even if we cease dumping today, the amount of plastic in the marine environment may continue rising because the coastlines are working as holding facilities for plastic already on its way to sea: the quantity of microplastics in the ocean would grow as material already trapped in the environment degrades. Whilst the researchers do suggest that ‘the problem will be with us for decades’, they nevertheless urge for societal change as we move forward, in particular calling for drastic reductions in emissions of plastic pollution, along with active engagement in the removal of current plastic waste from the marine environment.

Applicants for Earth Sciences, including those interested in environmental preservation and marine conservation, may consider the potentially catastrophic effects for our planet of not actively engaging in resolving plastic pollution.

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