Widely relied-on estimate of plastic dumped yearly in oceans off by "magnitudes", new study says

A 2015 study, now apparently shown as inaccurate, has been cited frequently by media, government officials and environmental organizations over the years as the "conventional wisdom"

Published: August 14, 2023 11:31pm

It has been repeatedly stated as fact that "8 to 10 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into oceans" every single year. However, according to a new peer-reviewed study in Nature Geoscience, that’s 7,500,000 metric tons off the mark.

The study, published this month and titled "Global mass of buoyant marine plastics dominated by large long-lived debris," used "observational data" from coastlines, the ocean surface, and the deep ocean to conclude that the amount of plastic pouring into the oceans every year is about 500,000 metric tons. The researchers' abstract said that "recent estimates of the oceanic input of plastic are one to two orders of magnitude larger than the amount measured floating at the surface." 

Though this may still sound like a lot, but a widely relied upon 2015 study overshot the "accepted" number by a whopping 1,600%.

Referring to the data cited from the 2015 study led by Dr. Jenna Jambeck from the University of Georgia, the new study explains that "This discrepancy could be due to overestimation of input estimates, processes removing plastic from the surface ocean or fragmentation and degradation." 

The 2015 study with the now-challenged estimate was been adopted as authoritative by a range of media outlets, environmental activists and government agencies.

Nancy Wallace, Marine Debris Program Director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), called the 2015 study "significant" in a New York Times article. Though she conceded it wasn’t an exact figure, she said it "gives us [NOAA] an idea of… where we might need to focus our efforts to affect the issue." 

To date, Dr. Jambeck’s 2015 study is listed on the NOAA website. Just the News contacted Wallace and NOAA’s media team for comment. 

Other entities who accepted the 2015 data as a fact include The World Economic Forum, who said "At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050" and suggested that plastic pollutants "are adding to the climate change problem." Other proponents of the "conventional wisdom" include UNESCO, The National Geographic Society, Time magazine, The Washington Post, as well as dozens of environmental organizations, such as "Environmental Action" and "Ocean Conservancy" all of whom have cited the "8 million metric tons of plastic pollution" figure.

Outlets like The New York Times, which propped up the 2015 study, have appeared to downplay the new number and double down on pushing a fearful narrative. "There Might Be Less Plastic in the Sea Than We Thought. But Read On," reads their headline about the new data. "The new research might seem like good news, but the full picture is complicated: The amount of plastic in the ocean is still increasing by about 4 percent every year, according to the study," the Times added.

Stephen Guertin, Deputy Director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife at the Department of The Interior, also used Jambeck’s study in his 2019 testimony before Congress, repeating that "it is believed that at least 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year, and make up 80 percent of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments."

And while America has been continually criticized for its role in plastic pollution, with many states passing legislation to severely restrict the use of plastic products, Manhattan Institute waste expert John Tierney says "virtually all the consumer plastics polluting the world’s oceans comes from ‘mismanaged waste’ in developing countries."

"The Environmental Protection Agency has promoted recycling as a way to reduce carbon emissions, but its own figures show the benefits are relatively small and come almost entirely from recycling paper products and metals, not plastic," he wrote in a New York Post op-ed, adding that rather than Americans sending plastic to a landfill, "most" of it ends up being shipped overseas to developing nations.

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