Over 171 trillion plastic particles are already poisoning our planet's oceans.

Amassing Microplastics

After trawling through some forty years' worth of data, scientists have identified a foreboding "plastic smog" pervading our oceans that comprises more than 171 trillion plastic particles, according to their new study published in the journal PLOS ONE. Weighed altogether, that amounts to around 2.3 million tons.

Equally alarming was the "rapid and unprecedented" increase of the particles in the ocean since 2005 — which is only expected to worsen in the coming decades.

"It is much higher than previous estimates," study co-author Lisa Erdle, director of science and innovation at the environmental non-profit 5 Gyres, told CNN.

Plastic Beach

These estimates are based on surface water data between 1979 and 2019 that was gathered from nearly 12,000 stations across the world.

Rather than general plastic waste, the researchers focused specifically on microplastics. These fine particles, while vastly outweighed by the eight to ten million tons of general plastic waste dumped in the oceans each year, are just as dangerous to ocean life since they can be easily ingested, and are almost as inescapable in ocean water now as salt.

But microplastics don't need to be ingested to be harmful. They can just as easily seep toxic chemicals into the surrounding water, too.

Beyond Cleanup

Ominously, based on the woefully inadequate current rates of recycling paired with an increase in plastic production, the study predicts that the rate of plastic pollution entering the ocean will increase by about 2.6 times by 2040, highlighting the lack of meaningful, urgent action being undertaken to combat the problem.

"We clearly need some solutions that have teeth," Erdle told CNN.

And by solutions that have teeth, Erdle doesn't mean fishing errant plastic bottles out of the ocean, which, as the researchers wrote in the study, "has limited merit" — a sentiment shared by other marine scientists.

Instead, the best solution according to the researchers is "creating binding and enforceable international agreements to prevent the emissions of plastic pollution."

In other words, humanity will have to start getting real about limiting the amount of plastic we produce — and, most of the time, end up wasting.

"Cleanup is futile if we continue to produce plastic at the current rate, and we have heard about recycling for too long while the plastic industry simultaneously rejects any commitments to buy recycled material or design for recyclability," said study author Marcus Eriksen, co-founder of 5 Gyres, as quoted by The Guardian.

More on ocean pollution: The Refreshing Spray of the Ocean Is Loaded With Sewage Bacteria, Scientists Find

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