Article in peer-reviewed journal
May 2020, Scientific reports

Matthias Egger, Fatimah Sulu-Gambari and Laurent Lebreton

  • Publication type: Article in peer-reviewed journal
  • Publication journal: Scientific Reports
  • Collaborators: The Ocean Cleanup
  • Publication date: 06.05.2020
  • DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-64465-8

Abstract

The infamous garbage patches on the surface of subtropical oceanic gyres are proof that plastic is polluting the ocean on an unprecedented scale. The fate of floating plastic debris ‘trapped’ in these gyres, however, remains largely unknown. Here, we provide the first evidence for the vertical transfer of plastic debris from the North Pacific Garbage Patch (NPGP) into the underlying deep sea. The numerical and mass concentrations of plastic fragments (500 µm to 5 cm in size) suspended in the water column below the NPGP follow a power law decline with water depth, reaching values < 0.001 pieces/m3 and < 0.1 µg/m3 in the deep sea. The plastic particles in the NPGP water column are mostly in the size range of particles that are apparently missing from the ocean surface and the polymer composition of plastic in the NPGP water column is similar to that of floating debris circulating in its surface waters (i.e. dominated by polyethylene and polypropylene). Our results further reveal a positive correlation between the amount of plastic debris at the sea surface and the depth-integrated concentrations of plastic fragments in the water column. We therefore conclude that the presence of plastics in the water column below the NPGP is the result of ‘fallout’ of small plastic fragments from its surface waters.

  • Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Plastic pollution, Vertical distribution, vertical transfer