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Plastic world

By , 20 February 2015

Most of Australia’s ocean plastic comes from littering.  Credit: ©istock.com/tanukiphoto

Most of Australia’s ocean plastic comes from littering.
Credit: ©istock.com/tanukiphoto

Each year, around 16 plastic bags full of plastic enters the oceans for every meter of coastline – but where is it coming from?

Chris Wilcox, a researcher at CSIRO, used maths to find out how much plastic countries around the world are throwing into the oceans. It turns out it’s a lot.

“In 2010, if you turned all the plastic we threw in the oceans into cling film, it would cover the whole of Australia 1.6 times,” he says. “If we keep going the way we are, in 2025 we will put enough plastic in the oceans to cover Australia 6 times over with cling film.”

Chris was part of a team that estimated each country’s plastic contribution to the oceans by looking at their population, plastic use and waste management.

They found that in wealthier countries such as Australia, most of the plastic entering the ocean is from people throwing it on the ground. Chris thinks that 15–40 per cent of all our litter goes into the ocean.

Countries with a middle income such as China and Brazil have waste management systems that could be improved. Many rubbish dumps are not properly contained, and rubbish can blow away in the wind or be washed away by rains. In these countries, more plastic enters the ocean from waste mismanagement than littering. The poorer the country, the more plastic enters the oceans from waste mismanagement.

Without changing the way we manage and use plastic, plastics will keep getting dumped in the ocean at a rapid rate. “Plastic production is increasing and it doesn’t look like we are getting any better in waste management,” says Chris.

“Plastic production is increasing exponentially, doubling every 11 years. Between now and 2025 we will make as much plastic as we did up to today.”

You can help marine research find out more about plastics through the National Marine Debris Project. By spotting plastics on the beach and telling researchers about where you found it, we can understand more about plastics on the beach.

With an estimated six pieces of plastic for every meter of coastline, it should be an easy enough task to get some data.

More information

Teach Wild – find out the curriculum links to the National Marine Debris Project
CSIRO factsheet marine debris

This article first appeared in Science by Email. Sign up to Science by Email to receive science news, an activity and a quiz each week. It’s free!

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