The vast dump of plastic waste swirling in the Pacific Ocean is now bigger than France, Germany and Spain combined — far larger than previously feared — and is growing rapidly, a study published Thursday warned.
Researchers based in the Netherlands used a fleet of boats and aircraft to scan the immense accumulation of bottles, containers, fishing nets and microparticles known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" (GPGP) and found an astonishing build-up of plastic waste.
"We found about 80,000 tonnes of buoyant plastic currently in the GPGP," Laurent Lebreton, lead author of the study published in the journal Scientific Reports, told AFP.
But what really shocked the team was the number of plastic pieces that have built upon the ocean gyre between Hawaii and California in recent years.
They found that the dump now contains around 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, posing a dual threat to marine life.
Microplastics, tiny fragments of plastic smaller than 50mm in size that makes up the vast majority of items in the GPGP, can enter the food chain when swallowed by fish.
The pollutants they contain become more concentrated as they work their way up through the food web, all the way to top-level predators such as sharks, seals and polar bears.
"The other environmental impact comes from the larger debris, especially the fishing nets," said Lebreton.
These net fragments kill marine life by trapping fish and animals such as turtles in a process known as 'ghost fishing'.
The research team from the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, a Dutch start-up aiming to scoop up half the debris in the GPGP within five years, were surprised in particular in the build-up of larger plastic items, which accounted for more than 90 percent of the GPGP's mass.