Microplastics a Million Times More Abundant Than Previously Thought

Traditional way of counting marine microplastics is likely missing the smallest particles, suggesting that the number of microplastics in the ocean is off by five to seven orders of magnitude. 
 (Image: via   pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
Traditional way of counting marine microplastics is likely missing the smallest particles, suggesting that the number of microplastics in the ocean is off by five to seven orders of magnitude. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Nothing seems safe from plastic contamination. A new study by NSF-funded researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography suggests there could be a million times more pieces of plastic in the ocean than previously estimated.

Biological oceanographer Jennifer Brandon found some of the tiniest microplastics in seawater at much higher concentrations than previously measured. Her method showed that the traditional way of counting marine microplastics is likely missing the smallest particles, suggesting that the number of microplastics in the ocean is off by five to seven orders of magnitude.

Scientists measured microplastics found in salps, pictured here. (Image: Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

Scientists measured microplastics found in salps, pictured here. (Image: Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

Brandon now estimates that the ocean is contaminated by 8.3 million pieces of mini-microplastics per cubic meter of water. Her discovery is published in Limnology and Oceanography Letters. Brandon said:

Most plastics are so chemically strong that neither microbes in the soil nor the water can break down the elemental bonds. For answers, Brandon turned to salps, gelatinous filter-feeding invertebrates that suck in water to eat and to propel themselves around the upper 6,500 feet of the ocean.

Their stomachs were a likely place to find mini-microplastics. Of the 100 salps Brandon surveyed from water samples collected in 2009, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017, 100 percent had mini-microplastics in their guts.

The research was an outgrowth of basic research that took place at NSF’s Central California Current Long-Term Ecological Research site. Dan Thornhill, a program director in NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences said:

Despite tremendous interest in microplastics, we are just beginning to understand the scale and effects of these ocean contaminants. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Despite tremendous interest in microplastics, we are just beginning to understand the scale and effects of these ocean contaminants. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Provided by: National Science Foundation [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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