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Even the Deepest Parts of the Ocean Are Polluted With Startling Amounts of Plastic

A review of data from 5,010 ROV dives reveals and abundance of single-use plastics littering the seas

Plastic ice bag found by a NOAA expedition to the Marianas in 2016 (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research)
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These days, plastic is almost a way of life. Soda, water and iced coffee come in disposable plastic cups; plastic bags are handed out with even the smallest purchase. Fruit is sometimes even sold swathed in plastic wrap.

But the decades of this plastic binge have consequences—especially in the oceans, where much of that waste ends up. By 2050, according to a 2017 U.N report, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish if plastic use continues at its current rate. And a new study shows there’s hardly a spot left in the oceans not affected. A review of deep ocean dives over the last 35 years reveals a startling degree of plastic debris in the remotest depths of the seas, reports The Telegraph.

According to the study, currently in press at the journal Marine Policy, researchers analyzed reports, videos and photos collected in the Deep-sea Debris Database established in 2017 by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.

The database includes reports from 5,010 deep sea submersible and remote operated vehicles dives undertaken since 1983. Plastic debris was observed in 3,425 of those dives, 89 percent of which was single-use plastic products. Marine organisms were observed in 17 percent of those debris images.

Some of the plastic was tangled up in cold-seep communities, unique ecosystems in the deep ocean where oil and methane seep out of fissures. “The ubiquitous distribution of single-use plastic, even to the greatest depths of the ocean, reveal a clear link between daily human activities and the remotest of environments,” according to a U.N. press release for the study.

Perhaps the most disturbing image found in the database was a plastic bag found nearly 36,000 feet below the surface in the Mariana Trench. Over a mile deeper than Mount Everest is tall, this is the ocean’s deepest spot, the trench contains the deepest spots of the ocean.

In fact, the Mariana Trench is surprisingly polluted for being so remote. The trash on the seabed is just a visible reminder of what human activities are doing to the ocean. A study last year found that crustaceans pulled from the depths were more contaminated than animals found in China’s most polluted rivers. The organisms had high levels of persistent organic pollutants, like PCBs and PBDE’s, chemicals used in industrial manufacturing as plasticizers, coolants and flame retardants. These compounds can persist in the environment for hundreds of years.

Plastic pollution on the seafloor is far from the only problem in the oceans. As plastic degrades over time, it breaks into tiny microparticles that can contaminate the entire ocean food chain, from krill to baleen whales. That’s not to mention the large chunks of plastic debris and—most importantly—discarded plastic fishing nets that pollute the oceans, which animals accidently ingest or become trapped in. It was recently estimated that one area of the Pacific, called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” contains 79,000 metric tons of mostly plastic trash, almost half of which is old fishing gear and nets.

While the situation is dire, experts believe that there’s still time to turn the problem around. In a report released last year called Stopping Ocean Plastics: An Agenda for Action, researchers suggest that putting caps on plastic waste and stopping waste mismanagement in the 10 top plastic-polluting countries could reduce plastic pollution entering the ocean by 77 percent. The U.N. suggests creating a global monitoring network and studying global ocean circulation patterns to understand how plastic moves from land into the deep sea. In fact, this year’s U.N. World Environment Day theme, which takes place June 5, is Beat Plastic Pollution.

“Humanity is only just waking up to the extent to which it is harming itself and the planetary environment through the plague-proportions of plastic it is dumping into the ocean,” Peter Thomson, President of the UN General Assembly says. "…We have all played a part in this problem; we must all work on the solutions."

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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