There’s no shortage of ballpark figures telling us about the unfathomable amount of plastic in the ocean today. Scientists throw out numbers in the billions — whether it’s to measure actual pieces of plastic debris entering our ocean each day or to tell us “X-tons” of microplastics are floating somewhere in the Pacific, or Atlantic, or pick your favorite body of water — as if we can comprehend what a billion of anything amounts to.
According to the 5 Gyres Institute, an organization dedicated to tackling this exact problem, take all of those old numbers you’ve been given and throw them out. They say we’ve likely underestimated the level of marine plastic pollution and the institute’s newest research, released Wednesday, suggests volume has grown exponentially since the turn of the century. Researchers from 5 Gyres compiled the data of 11,777 ocean stations in six parts of the world from 1979 to 2019 and found that there’s been an unreal exponential growth in plastic pollution between about 2005 and 2019, when the volume of plastics surged from about 16 trillion pieces to 171 trillion pieces.
“Since numbers that vast are hard for the human brain to comprehend, consider this: A trillion seconds is 32,000 years. If each of those 358 trillion plastic particles represented a second, they would equal 11,456,000 years,” wrote Treehugger, a site that offers advice for the eco-savvy and green-living amongst us. Or, according to The Washington Post, there are 21,000 pieces of plastic in the ocean for each person on Earth and plastic pollution is trending at a rate that doubles every six years.
What’s more, the report estimates our current volume has the potential to almost triple by 2040, assuming no meaningful global policies are enacted. An obvious solution they argue for is simply limiting the amount of plastic produced rather than ramping up efforts to clean our oceans and recycle plastics. The last two options do nothing to stop the flow of pollution into the sea, while the first cuts it off at the source.
“This exponential rise in ocean surface plastic pollution might make you feel fatalistic. How can you fix this?” said Eriksen, a founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, “But at the same time, the world is negotiating a U.N. treaty on plastic pollution,” referring to a U.N. treaty aimed at capping the production of plastic globally. The new proposal would regulate all aspects of the plastic life cycle, from the chemicals used to make it to recycling efforts.