A marine plastic cloud - Global mass balance assessment of oceanic plastic pollution

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To improve our understanding and management of marine plastic pollution of the ocean, a total plastic budget is needed which quantifies the sources and sinks, as well as inputs and removal of plastic per unit time. The current state of knowledge indicates that the coastal zone and ocean water column are major locations for plastic pollution, but the fate of much of this must ultimately be the deep ocean floor. We reviewed 23 journal articles that provide 280 observations of deep-sea sediment microplastic concentration across six different off-shelf environments. We calculate the following mean concentrations of microplastic particles (number) per kg of sediment: continental slope 502; submarine canyons 784; submarine fans and continental rise 714; abyssal plains 217; trenches and troughs 2782; and abyssal hills, mountains and other ocean floor 165 particles kg−1. These figures are alarming because several exceed one estimate of ‘safe’ levels of microplastic concentration for benthic marine life (540 particles kg−1). Monitoring of the concentration of plastic particles in sediments of submarine canyons, fans and continental rise environments and in trenches and troughs should be a priority to ensure efficacy of policies and actions taken to curb ocean plastic pollution at both the national and global level. We estimate 3.05 million tonnes of microplastic resides in deep ocean sediments but acknowledge the uncertainties of this figure. If correct, this figure implies that the ocean water column (which may contain as much as 90 million tonnes of microplastic) is a major, transitory sink for MP, forming a suspended, marine plastic cloud. In addition to particle concentrations, further measurements of the size and mass of microplastic in deep-sea sediments and in the water column are needed to advance development of mass balance budgets for marine plastic pollution.

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Continental Shelf Research