Where Does All the Ocean Garbage Go?

April 20, 2019

Great areas of our rubbish are known to form in parts of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. But no such “garbage patch” has been found in the Southern Indian Ocean.

Our research – published recently in Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans – looked at why that’s the case, and what happens to the rubbish that gets dumped in this particular area.

Every year, up to 15 million tonnes of plastic waste is estimated to make its way into the ocean through coastlines (about 12.5 million tonnes) and rivers (about 2.5 million tonnes). This amount is expected to double by 2025.

Some of this waste sinks in the ocean, some is washed up on beaches, and some floats on the ocean surface, transported by currents.

The garbage patches

As plastic materials are extremely durable, floating plastic waste can travel great distances in the ocean. Some floating plastics collect in the centre of subtropical circulating currents known as gyres, between 20 to 40 degrees north and south, to create these garbage patches.

Here, the ocean currents converge at the centre of the gyre and sink. But the floating plastic material remains at the surface, allowing it to concentrate in these regions.

The best known of these garbage patches is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which contains about 80,000 tonnes of plastic waste. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration points out, the “patches” are not actually clumped collections of easy-to-see debris, but concentrations of litter (mostly small pieces of floating plastic).

Similar, but smaller, patches exist in the North and South Atlantic Oceans and the South Pacific Ocean. In total, it is estimated that only 1% of all plastic waste that enters the ocean is trapped in the garbage patches. It is still a mystery what happens to the remaining 99% of plastic waste that has entered the ocean.

Rubbish in the Indian Ocean

Even less is known about what happens to plastic in the Indian Ocean, although it receives the largest input of plastic material globally.

For example, it has been estimated that up to 90% of the global riverine input of plastic waste originates from Asia. The input of plastics to the Southern Indian Ocean is mainly through Indonesia. The Australian contribution is small.

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