Study: Plastic debris widespread on ocean surface

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Study: Plastic debris widespread on ocean surface
This 2008 photo provided by NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center shows debris in Hanauma Bay, Hawaii. A study released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, June 30, 2014, estimated the total amount of floating plastic debris in open ocean at 7,000 to 35,000 tons. The results of the study showed fewer very small pieces than expected. (AP Photo/NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center)
This undated photo provide by NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program shows small plastic debris that are visible from the surface of the water. A study released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, June 30, 2014, estimated the total amount of floating plastic debris in open ocean at 7,000 to 35,000 tons. The results of the study showed fewer very small pieces than expected. (AP Photo/NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program)
This undated photo provided by NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program shows debris collected inside the cod end of the manta net after a tow. The sample was dominated by very small plastic particles. A study released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, June 30, 2014, estimated the total amount of floating plastic debris in open ocean at 7,000 to 35,000 tons. (AP Photo/NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program)
In this undated photo provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows pre-production resin pellets that are sometimes found in the ocean. A study released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, June 30, 2014, estimated the total amount of floating plastic debris in open ocean at 7,000 to 35,000 tons. The results of the study showed fewer very small pieces than expected. (AP Photo/NOAA)
In this 2009 photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a sample taken from the Patapsco River in Maryland. A study released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, June 30, 2014, estimated the total amount of floating plastic debris in open ocean at 7,000 to 35,000 tons. The results of the study showed fewer very small pieces than expected. (AP Photo/NOAA)
FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2011 file photo, police officers monitor debris washed ashore on the Mount Maunganui Beach as a shipping container fallen from the grounded container ship Rena sits in the breakwater near Tauranga, New Zealand. Not only is the trash a time-wasting distraction for air and sea crews searching for debris from the Malaysia Airlines flight that vanished March 8, it also points to wider problems in the world’s oceans. The ocean is like a plastic soup, bulked up with the croutons of these larger items,” said Los Angeles captain Charles Moore, an environmental advocate credited with bringing attention to an ocean gyre between Hawaii and California known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (AP Photo/New Zealand Herald, Mark Mitchell) AUSTRALIA OUT, NEW ZEALAND OUT
Jenna Jambeck, an environment engineering professor at the University of Georgia, holds a plastic baggie with trash collected last fall from a clean up at Panama Beach, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015, at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) conference in San Jose, Calif. Each year about 8.8 million tons of plastic ends up in the world oceans, a quantity much higher than previous estimates, according to a new study that tracked marine debris from its source. (AP Photo/Seth Borenstein)
Staff members and volunteers work to clean oil off a brown pelican at the International Bird Rescue office in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles, on Friday, May 22, 2015. A broken onshore pipeline in near Santa Barbara, Calif., spewed oil down a storm drain and into the ocean for several hours Tuesday before it was shut off. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
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By Malcolm Ritter

NEW YORK (AP) -- Plastic junk is floating widely on the world's oceans, but there's less of it than expected, a study says.

Such ocean pollution has drawn attention in recent years because of its potential harm to fish and other wildlife.

The new work drew on results from an around-the-world cruise by a research ship that towed a mesh net at 141 sites, as well as other studies. Researchers estimated the total amount of floating plastic debris in open ocean at 7,000 to 35,000 tons.

Andres Cozar of the University of Cadiz in Spain, an author of the study, said that's a lot less than the 1 million tons he had extrapolated from data reaching back to the 1970s.

The new estimate includes only floating debris, not plastic that may reside beneath the surface or on the ocean floor.

Of the plastic pieces caught by the ship's net, most were less than about a fifth of an inch long. Some floating pieces start out small, like the microbeads found in some toothpastes and cosmetics or industrial pellets used to make plastic products. Other small pieces can result when wave action breaks up larger objects, like bottle caps, detergent bottles and shopping bags.

The net turned up fewer small pieces than expected, and it will be important to figure out why, researchers said. Perhaps the tiniest pieces are being eaten by small fish, with uncertain effects on their health, Cozar said in an email.

While the research showed plastic to be distributed widely, concentrations were highest in five areas that were predicted by ocean current patterns. They are west of the U.S., between the U.S. and Africa, west of southern South America and east and west of the southern tip of Africa.

Plastic debris from land reaches the ocean mostly through storm water runoff, the researchers said in their report, released Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Kara Lavender Law, who studies plastic pollution at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, said the study provides the first global estimate she knows of for floating plastic debris. The estimate appears to be in the ballpark, given the results of prior regional studies, said Law, who didn't participate in the new work.

"We are putting, certainly by any estimate, a large amount of a synthetic material into a natural environment," Law said. "We're fundamentally changing the composition of the ocean."

The impact on fish and birds is hard to gauge because scientists don't understand things like how much plastic animals encounter and how they might be harmed if they swallow it, she said.

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