The Mystery of the Missing Plastic in the Atlantic Garbage Patch

By Andrew Moseman | August 19, 2010 5:54 pm

AtlanticGyreEarlier today we reported on scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution trying to answer the question, “Where’d all the oil in the Gulf go?” (At least some of it is floating around in giant plumes.) In the same issue of the journal Science released this afternoon, another team from Woods Hole tried to answer another pressing ocean question: “Where’d all the plastic in the Atlantic go?”

We’re referring to the great patch of plastic in the North Atlantic Gyre. You might have read the stories in DISCOVER and elsewhere about the more famous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a Texas-sized soup of tiny plastic pieces in the middle of that ocean. Circulating ocean currents create these gyres in several places around the world, and ocean-borne plastic gets trapped. The Woods Hole paper is the result of a two-decade study of the Atlantic patch that produced a surprising result: The amount in total plastic appears to have leveled off—at least according to the data.

Humans haven’t stopped putting plastic into the ocean, so what gives?

“We know that global production of plastics has increased substantially over the time period” and disposal also has increased, said Kara Lavender Law of the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass. “If there is more plastic trash it’s hard to believe more is not making it into the ocean. There is missing plastic out there,” she said [AP].

One possible answer, the scientists say, is that their methods of capturing and sampling the plastic miss the smaller pieces. And there are lots of smaller pieces: The garbage patches aren’t just dumps that happen to be out at sea. The thrash of the ocean water and the sun’s UV rays wear down the plastic bottles and bags into ever-smaller pieces, which now causes great concern about marine animals eating them.

Another possibility for the team’s finding is that algae or other sea life coat some plastic pieces and make them heavy enough to sink.

One thing is not in doubt: the North Atlantic patch covers an enormous area, just like its Pacific counterpart.

In their first publication of these data since the late 1980s, the SEA team reports that it found plastic in more than 60% of 6136 tows over 22 years. The levels are low close to shore but rise hundreds of kilometers off the coast between 22 and 38 degrees latitude (roughly from the Bahamas to Baltimore). “When you expect to see zero plastic hundreds of miles from shore, it’s shocking,” says lead author and SEA oceanographer Kara Lavender Law. But the plastic is “relatively dilute,” she adds—up to 1000 tiny pieces filtered from the equivalent of 2000 bathtubs of water [ScienceNOW].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The World’s Largest Dump: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
80beats: Scientists Find 22-Mile-Long Oily Plume Drifting in the Gulf of Mexico
80beats: Ships Set Sail to Examine the Vast Patch of Plastic in the Pacific Ocean
The Intersection: Voyage to the Plastic Island of Garbage

Image: SEA / Science (trajectories of drifting buoys near the gyre)

MORE ABOUT: ocean, plastic, pollution
  • jaykimball

    I was in New Zealand earlier this year, visiting the Dunedin Royal Albatross Colony, and saw a stunning display of the stomach contents of a young albatross. Small plastic bits floating on the ocean surface are mistaken for food.

    Info on the colony and a photo of the plastic are at:

  • Eric H

    Ever since I have read about the plastic patch I’ve cut down significatnly on my use of plastic. I avoid it as much as I can, not only for my own health-especially now knowing it causes harm to our bodies in a manner which I find errie but just strange! Reading an article in DISCOVER about its potential to cause harm to dna in young children does not settle well with me. Plastic may have seemed like a wonder material that revolutionized almost EVERYTHING in our lives, but we should be looking for alternative materials to keep us safe, and healthy. We do not need it in our oceans reguardless if its trapped out there! Take care of the planet don’t trash it! NO PLASTIC!

  • Paul D.

    I’ve thought of these refuse patches as huge bioreactors, unintended experiments in evolution. We’re exposing kilotons of tiny plastic bits to untold numbers of microorganisms. Are we going to see plastic-eating bacteria evolve? Shades of Mutant 59!


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