Shopping Bags in the Abyss: Addressing the Deep-Sea Plastic Crisis

Date: October 3, 2018

Author: Chiba Sanae

The impact of human activity, namely our heavy reliance on single-use plastic products, has reached even the deepest depths of the ocean. Recently, I helped publish “Human Footprint in the Abyss,” the first-ever paper documenting the extent of plastic pollution in marine environments at depths greater than 6,000 meters. The project involved researchers from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and the UN World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and was based in part on findings from JAMSTEC’s Deep-Sea Debris Database. Launched in 2017, the database compiles images and videos taken from 1982 through 2015, during 5,010 dives to depths of more than 100 meters, by deep-sea submersibles and remotely operated vehicles.

Our research found that 33% of debris observed at depths below 2,000 meters was macroplastics—plastic waste large enough to see with the naked eye—of which 89% was single-use items such as shopping bags. Below 6,000 meters, these ratios increased to 52% and 92%, respectively, conclusively illustrating that no part of the ocean, not even the unexplored abyss, is free from the spread of marine plastics.

The image that created the biggest media buzz was a plastic bag lying at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, more than 10,000 meters below the surface. This was not even a new finding, but was first observed during a 1998 survey. The information in the JAMSTEC database stretches back even further, dating from 1983, and shows that plastic pollution in the deep sea is far from a recent development but has been steadily accumulating for decades.

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