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Plastic pollution

This plastic crate was found on the seafloor off the coast of Southern California.

Plastic pollution

The human imprint of plastic pollution is now evident in all marine ecosystems. Scientists have documented plastics everywhere from white sand beaches and colorful coral reefs to the deepest, darkest trenches of the ocean. Plastic in the ocean imposes physical hazards to marine animals that eat or get tangled in it. Ocean plastic pollution presents a chemical hazard to the marine animals that ingest it. This toxic load includes both the synthetic ingredients in the plastic itself, and the contaminants that adhere to the plastic from the surrounding

Recent MBARI research has included a look at how plastic moves through the ocean food web, and how microplastics are ingested by larvaceans, which in turn excrete the pellets, sending them toward the seafloor. An MBARI team also did a comprehensive review of 22-years-worth of video from the deep sea to shed light on the distribution of marine debris in and around Monterey Canyon.

A plastic bottle entering the ocean at the surface starts to break down as it sinks and pieces of the bottle are eaten by different animals as the plastic sinks toward the seafloor.
Plastics in the ocean are broken down into smaller pieces and are ingested by many animals, contaminating the marine food web. Some of the plastic ends up on the seafloor. Illustration by Kelly Lance © 2017 MBARI

Learn more:

Fight against plastic pollution targets a hidden source: Our clothes, NBC News Digital, May 5, 2019

The rise in ocean plastics evidenced from a 60-year time series, Nature Communications, April 16, 2019

Balloons the number 1 marine debris risk of mortality for seabirds, Science Daily, March 3, 2019

Microplastics research—from sink to source, Science, April 6, 2018.

Plastic waste associated with disease on coral reefs, Science, January 26, 2018

Exceptional and rapid accumulation of anthropogenic debris on one of the world’s most remote and pristine islands, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 6, 2017

Human footprint in the abyss: 30 year records of deep-sea plastic debris, Science Direct, April 6, 2018

Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Science, February 13, 2015

VIDEO: Microplastics in the ocean

Plastics facts

  • Almost nine million tons of plastic enter the global ocean each year. (Source: Monterey Bay Aquarium)
  • On average, every American produces 200 pounds of plastic waste per year. (Source: Monterey Bay Aquarium)
  • If current practices continue, plastic input into the ocean is expected to double by 2025. (Source: Monterey Bay Aquarium)

“We’re working to understand the transport and cycling of plastics through ocean food webs, and what this might mean for humans.””

—Former Postdoctoral Fellow Anela Choy
on a joint project with the Monterey Bay Aquarium

MBARI publications

Choy, C.A., Robison, B.H., Gagne, T.O., Erwin, B., Firl, E., Halden, R.U., Hamilton, J.A., Katija, K., Lisin, S.E., Rolsky, C., Van Houtan, K.S. (2019). The vertical distribution and biological transport of marine microplastics across the epipelagic and mesopelagic water column, Scientific Reports, 6, 115, doi:

Katija, K., C.A. Choy, R.E. Sherlock, A.D. Sherman, and B.H. Robison (2017). From the surface to the seafloor: How giant larvaceans transport microplastics into the deep sea. Science Advances 3e1700715.

Schlining, K., S. Von Thun, L. Kuhnz, B. Schlining, L. Lundsten, N. Jacobsen Stout, L. Chaney, and J. Connor (2013). Debris in the deep: Using a 22-year video annotation database to survey marine litter in Monterey Canyon, Central California, USA. Deep Sea Research I79: 96-105.

Lesson plans

The following lesson plans about plastic in the ocean were created by teachers participating in the EARTH teacher workshops. EARTH—which stands for Education and Research: Testing Hypotheses—uses near-real-time data from ocean observatories to create lessons for students.