Plastic pollution is one of the biggest threats the oceans face today.
But how much do we really know about it?
On its mission to solve this problem,
The Ocean Cleanup just published the most advanced research ever
on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,
the largest accumulation zone of ocean plastic on the planet.
Scientists have been studying this area since the 1970s
mostly by dragging a small sampling net through the ocean.
The Ocean Cleanup's researchers believed this method was valid only for small debris
and covered too small an area to reliably measure larger debris.
So, in the summer of 2015,
The Ocean Cleanup launched the Mega Expedition,
crossing the patch with 30 boats simultaneously.
In addition to using many small nets,
two giant trawls were towed behind the fleet's mothership.
In total, they brought back 1.2 million plastic samples.
All were hand counted, identified and classified by type and size.
A monumental task, taking a team of lab technicians two years to complete
However, the largest debris appeared less frequent and more scattered.
Quantifying this debris required an area twenty times larger than the Mega Expedition to be covered,
something only possible...
from the sky.
The Ocean Cleanup ran the first-ever aerial surveys of a garbage patch
by converting a former military aircraft into a high-tech research platform
Cutting-edge sensors allowed them to reconstruct the 3D shapes of large debris
to calculate their mass.
The results of all this work?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch measures 1.6 million km2,
that is three times the size of France.
The patch contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic
which equals 250 pieces for every human in the world.
The total mass amounts to 80,000 tons,
four to sixteen times more than previous estimates.
92% of this mass is made of the larger objects,
all of which are destined to fragment into dangerous microplastics over the next few decades,
if left under the effect of sun and waves.
And because the findings show that pollution in the patch is increasing exponentially,
the plastic is unlikely to go away by itself.
These results paint a new picture of the problem,
and provide a baseline for the cleanup of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,
set to start in 2018.