High concentrations of floating plastic debris have been reported in remote areas of the ocean, increasing concern about the accumulation of plastic litter on the ocean surface. Since the introduction of plastic materials in the 1950s, the global production of plastic has increased rapidly and will continue in the coming decades. However, the abundance and the distribution of plastic debris in the open ocean are still unknown, despite evidence of affects on organisms ranging from small invertebrates to whales. In this work, we synthetize data collected across the world to provide a global map and a first-order approximation of the magnitude of the plastic pollution in surface waters of the open ocean.
There is a rising concern regarding the accumulation of floating plastic debris in the open ocean. However, the magnitude and the fate of this pollution are still open questions. Using data from the Malaspina 2010 circumnavigation, regional surveys, and previously published reports, we show a worldwide distribution of plastic on the surface of the open ocean, mostly accumulating in the convergence zones of each of the five subtropical gyres with comparable density. However, the global load of plastic on the open ocean surface was estimated to be on the order of tens of thousands of tons, far less than expected. Our observations of the size distribution of floating plastic debris point at important size-selective sinks removing millimeter-sized fragments of floating plastic on a large scale. This sink may involve a combination of fast nano-fragmentation of the microplastic into particles of microns or smaller, their transference to the ocean interior by food webs and ballasting processes, and processes yet to be discovered. Resolving the fate of the missing plastic debris is of fundamental importance to determine the nature and significance of the impacts of plastic pollution in the ocean.