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Survey Reveals Ocean's Plastic Pollution Is Much Worse Than Scientists Originally Thought

Zee Krstic

Researchers and conservationists alike have known for years that pollution in the ocean is a serious issue, but new evidence provided in the form of a geographical survey suggests that the scope of the issue is much larger than experts once thought. A comprehensive survey of debris on islands in the Indian Ocean led researchers to find nearly 415 million pieces of plastic, and the results of their investigation have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The main takeaway from the report suggests that initial estimates of oceanic pollution may have been underinflated because the majority of plastic pollution is actually below the surface of the waters. This observation was primarily made by studying the beaches of Australia's Cocos Islands, a small cluster that consists of two coral atolls, in the heart of the Indian Ocean, which is more remote compared to other oceans. Only 600 people live full time on Cocos, and their reality "highlights a worrying trend in the production and discharge of single-use products," the report says.

While researchers say they have a better idea of the scope of plastic pollution, they add that most global surveys don't often consider what lies beneath the waves, meaning estimates could still be off. In addition to Cocos, researchers surveyed another six of the 27 remote islands located in the Indian Ocean, coming to the conclusion that these places alone held upwards of 262 tons of plastic.

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Mostly, the waste was comprised of single-use items, like straws, plastic bags, toothbrushes, and shoes—more than 977,000 shoes, to be exact. Debris buried under the beach's topmost layer of sand was 26 times greater the number of plastic researchers found on the surface, which means previous surveys that only assessed what professionals could see are dramatically off.

The report's lead author, Jennifer Lavers, a research scientist for the University of Tasmania Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, said in a statement that these islands are the best indicator of how much plastic is truly floating in our oceans. Back in 2017, her team of researchers discovered that Henderson Island, another remote landing in the heart of the South Pacific, was the world's most polluted island.

"Islands such as these are like canaries in a coal mine and it's increasingly urgent that we act on the warnings they are giving us. Plastic pollution is now ubiquitous in our oceans, and remote islands are an ideal place to get an objective view of the volume of plastic debris now circling the globe," Lavers said.

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Recently, another team of academics put forth their best estimate of how much plastic is now floating in the ocean worldwide—more than 5.25 trillion pieces, which is more than the stars in the Milky Way, National Geographic reports. Annett Finger, a co-author of the report at Victoria University, told The Guardian that the amount of plastic produced in the last decade is nearly half the amount made in the past 60 years.

"An estimated 12.7 million tons of plastic entered our oceans in 2010 alone, with around 40 percent of plastics entering the waste stream in the same year they're produced," she said. "The scale of the problem means cleaning up our oceans is currently not possible, and cleaning beaches once they are polluted with plastic is time consuming, costly, and needs to be regularly repeated as thousands of new pieces of plastic wash up each day."