How many plastic bags are there in the ocean?

Posted by Valerie on Feb 17, 2021 2:33:05 PM

The simple answer is that there is an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic in the ocean. To try to understand the enormous weight of this number, let’s compare it to other incredibly heavy items. 

FINAL Oceans plastic pollution weight comparison (1)Amount of plastic in the ocean is approximately equal to:

 

  • 53,445 blue whales (Assuming they were all full grown at 330,000 pounds)

  • 4,008 full rocket ships (4.4 million pounds each, NASA average)



  • 109 Washington Monuments (162 million pounds each, U.S.A)



  • 89 freight trains (200 million pounds each, average)



  • 1 and a half pyramids of Giza (5.74 million tons, Egypt)

                                                                                

 

There are, of course, a wide variety of different plastic debris that make up these 8 million metric tons. However, for visualization purposes, let's go ahead and assume that all that weight is made up of solely plastic bags...

Each plastic bag weighs about 6 grams.

There are 1 million grams in 1 metric ton.

Meaning that roughly 1,333,333,333,333 plastic bags equals the 8 million metric ton weight of plastic in the ocean.

That is well over one trillion plastic bags.

That number is so big that it is incredibly hard to grasp.

To help visualize it, this is what one million looks like. Now imagine each dot is one plastic bag, keeping in mind that one trillion equals a million millions, and that you are looking at just one of those million millions. 

In other words, you would have to look at that document a million times to get to one trillion... Crazy, huh?

But the ocean is really big, right? I mean really big. It covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface.
How much damage can be done?

 

The simple answer is: A lot.

In fact, plastic bags are considered to be one of the most prevalent and deadliest of ocean debris to a number of marine animals, but especially to dolphins and other cetaceans.

 

final dolphin infographic


Presence of the item in the gastrointestinal tract is shown in blue. Mortality numbers caused by that item are shown in red.
This study included plastic bags in the category of firm-like plastics, which, as you can see above, is evidently the most ingested and most harmful to dolphins and other cetaceans out of all the debris found in the ocean. 

The problem with plastic is that it was made to last forever, but we tend to use them just once (think straws, water bottles, take-out boxes, and, of course, plastic bags).

So, after we use them just once, they are likely to eventually find their way into the ocean where they linger indefinitely. This is because plastic doesn’t break down entirely. Instead, it breaks down into tiny pieces called microplastics.

 

What are microplastics?

sesame seed microplastics

In technical terms, microplastics are pieces of plastic that are less than 5 millimeters long. Some are so small that they cannot be seen with the naked eye.

 

Microplastics are thought to be everywhere- in the food we eat and in the air we breathe.

One study actually hypothesized that humans may be ingesting up to 52,000 microplastic particles per year. Multiply that by your age and, well, that’s a lot of plastic.

For the first time ever recorded, microplastics were even found in the placentas of pregnant women. 

We’ll go into further detail about microplastics in our next blog.

 

In the meantime, what can you do?

  • Reduce, reuse, recycle (duh). Seriously, though, this cliché alliteration is incredibly important. Think back on how much single-use plastic ends up in the ocean – it could have been used again or repurposed for something else!
  • Take your own reusable bags to the grocery store (!! This one is really important).
  • Buy foods that are not pre-packaged (better for the planet and for your health).
  • Invest in a reusable water bottle and a metal straw.
  • Volunteer in local beach cleanups or just pick up litter whenever you see it. (It may not be your trash, but it is your planet).
  • When ordering in food, opt out of the plastic silverware.
  • Go thrift shopping/buy previously used clothing ("the manufacture of clothing is the second largest polluting industry in the world after oil and gas"... yeah, you read that right, and can read more about it here). 
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