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The Pacific Isn't the Only Ocean Turning into a Trash Heap

A swirling 'soup' of plastic has been found in the Atlantic, and something similar may be present in other ocean areas.

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Those post-consumer products eventually break down into small pieces -- most of the fragments caught in SEA's plankton nets are about the size of a pencil eraser. Fish, birds, and sea mammals can mistake those tiny pieces for food and eat them. Fish and birds caught in regions with high plastic concentrations have been found to have numerous bits of plastic in their stomachs.

One of the puzzling aspects of SEA's study is that it does not show an increase in concentration of plastics during the 22 years of sampling.

"That's one of the main questions we're trying to answer with the data set," says Law. "I believe the evidence shows there has to be more going into the ocean. The question is, why don't we see an increase in this region where we collect."

It's possible that the plastics have broken down into such small pieces that they pass through the plankton nets, she says, or that bacteria or organisms growing on the pieces could cause them to sink. And some of the trash could escape to other areas of the ocean on wayward currents.

When it comes to stemming the tide of plastic waste, there is no easy answer. Most experts agree that cleaning up the tiny pieces already swirling in ocean currents thousands of miles from land is impossible. Instead, the focus should be on prevention.

Law says that education is key. It's important to raise awareness of what happens to the plastic that millions of people throw away every day. "There's a perception that if you put it in a recycle bin, it will end up being recycled, but it's not clear that's always the case."

Perhaps, experts speculate, the real reason that so much plastic ends up at sea is because so much of it is designed to be used once, then tossed.

Dr. Eriksen says ending the throwaway design of plastics is essential to combating ocean pollution.

"I'm not against plastic, I'm just against the way we abuse the material," he says. "Knowing the environmental consequences of it, we have to rethink the responsible use of it."

Erickson also advocates economic incentives for plastic recovery -- such as giving plastic products a return value in recycling centers -- and "extended producer responsibility," in which manufacturers are responsible for the life cycle of their products. That would force producers to build the cost of recovery or recycling into the cost of the product.

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