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A study has found that there are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic – ranging in size floating in the waters of the world that pose a serious danger to both animals and humans.

A study which was published on Wednesday pointed to the desperate situation our ocean’s face as we continue to pollute them further with various sizes of plastic materials littering them entirely. The study revealed that 5 trillion pieces of plastic – which weigh somewhere in the ballpark of 269,000 tons are spread all across the oceans.

Researchers collected and analyzed the information that was revealed by going on several expeditions to the five subtropical gyres that exist. These are the places where the main currents in the ocean converge. After gathering a lot of data, and analyzing even more data – computers were able to calculate estimates as to what the figures look like.

Researchers pointed out that the most damaging plastic in any of the world’s oceans is the plastic that measures less than one-fifth of an inch. While it may seem microscopic to some, the estimation is that 35,540 tons of the total plastic waste in oceans is made up by these microscopic pieces. The cost is real, too, according to one of the researchers on the project noted that “We saw turtles that ate plastic bags and fish that ingested fishing lines. But there are also chemical impacts. When plastic gets into the water, it acts like a magnet for oily pollutants.” Many of the researchers went on to point out that the plastics are similar to “a cocktail of contaminants floating around in the aquatic habitat.”

Researchers are now questioning how this ingested plastic works its way up through the food chain. Ultimately, scientists are concerned that humans could even be impacted by eating an animal that once ingested plastic as well. The solution is much less simplistic than many want to believe, too. Now that the damage has been done, even a change of habit wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem. Ultimately, what we’re dealing with is a number of pollutants clogging up an already clogged ecosystem. With regards to the human impact – and if the impact could correlate directly to human health being impacted by consuming fish or other animals that have once consumed plastic products – intentionally or unintentionally – the team noted “We have very little knowledge of the chain of events that could lead to that. But it’s a plausible scenario that plastic ingested at lower levels of the food web could have consequences at higher levels of the food chain.”

Perhaps the biggest problem facing the aquatic world, and eliminating plastic pollution is understanding that just 5% of plastic actually gets recycled. Recycling and reusing plastic – even though production numbers continue to increase is absolutely crucial to preserve the environment from being completely annihilated by plastic contaminants. “We need to improve our use of plastic and also monitor plastics in the oceans so we get a better understanding of the issue,” said one member of the team. A startup in New York City is focused on putting ocean plastic to good use. The company collects that plastic and uses it to develop clothing and even develop some other products as well. This is just one of the many sensible solutions to the growing plastic problem in the ocean.

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Earlier suggestions showed that the increase of plastic in oceans had increased 100-fold in the previous 40 years, but now, even that number seems low. The numbers have only escalated as plastic production has increased. And now, the team worries that the estimated tonnage that is in the oceans today represents less than 1% of the plastic that is produced in a given year. Meaning, there is a lot more plastic out there. The most commonly found things floating in the ocean are typically fishing nets and buoys. Commercial fishing boats are often criticized for their waste management.

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At the end of the day, the only thing that will truly solve the problem – and address it properly, according to the researchers is a “100% Recovery Plan.” This plan would ensure that all future plastic products are accounted for, made with products that are safe for the environment, and wouldn’t ultimately pose the threat that currently is being place on ecosystems. While scientists haven’t been able to put any animals on the endangered list due to the plastic specifically, there are a ton of sea bound animals that could, and are being impacted. Seabirds, sea turtles, fish, various marine mammals like seals are all being impacted by this pollution problem – making the time now to act.

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