Ocean Pollution

A New Home for Marine Debris: The Deep Seafloor

By The Editors

Plastic bags are everywhere, and when they get somewhere (we’re talking sea), they’re there to stay.

As we mentioned in a previous post, plastic pollution is a major global threat. Plastics are durable, degrade very slowly and may persist in the environment for hundreds or even thousands of years, resulting in the increasing accumulation of plastic debris in our seas.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is perhaps the most striking example of sea pollution caused by plastics and other debris. The United Nations Environment Programme defines marine debris as “any persistent manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of or abandoned in the marine environment” (UNEP, 2009),

We’re used to see plastics on the planet’s beaches, seas and oceans, but we’re not used to see plastics on the deep seafloor, Not until now.

A recently published study shows how deep we can find debris. The study, published in the scientific journal “Deep-Sea Research I: Oceanographic Research Papers”, shows that debris accumulate up to 4,000 meters below the surface.

The largest proportion of the debris—about one third of the total—consists of objects made of plastic. Of these objects, more than half are plastic bags.

The study, made available on line on May 28 and performed by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), is based on the analysis of 18,000 hours of underwater video collected by MBARI’s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). Research technicians searched the Video Annotation and Reference System (VARS) database to find every video clip that showed debris on the seafloor. They then compiled data on all the different types of debris they saw, as well as when and where this debris was observed.

Kyra Schlining,lead author of the paper, noted, “The most frustrating thing for me is that most of the material we saw—glass, metal, paper, plastic—could be recycled.” She and her coauthors hope that their findings will inspire coastal residents and ocean users to recycle their trash instead of allowing it to end up in the ocean. In the conclusion of their article, they wrote, “Ultimately, preventing the introduction of litter into the marine environment through increased public awareness remains the most efficient and cost-effective solution to this dilemma.”

Watch the video below to hear Kyra describing what they have found on the deep seafloor and to see compelling images of the various types of debris.


  • Nisha Hudda

    This is a quite interesting post. I went to the Georgia Aquarium yesterday and they had a section that contributed to raising awareness to this issue by showing glass containers full of the everyday plastic products that we use and end up in the oceans, such as plastic bottles, bottle caps, plastic bags and, most interestingly, swimming goggles. I believe that this issue has become a very main stream problem and deserves the attention it is getting in the society, if not more. Issues like this should be discussed and announced to let the world aware of our plastic overuse. In the United States, we use 102 billion plastic shopping bags per year, whereas when I visited Italy they barely use plastic bags for their groceries. Italy is more eco-friendly and saves plastic usage by a ton, and I feel that in the United States we should try to use this same procedure in our grocery stores, which will save us a lot of plastic!


    • AnnaJosephine

      In the US, about 80 local governments in California, including San Francisco and San Jose, have already banned plastic bags. Same for Maui County, Hawaii. It’s going to happen soon in Los Angeles. New York might be next. Several grocery stores around the US do not use plastic bags, for example Whole Foods. Things are moving very slowly, but they’re moving….

  • awilliams199

    This issue is really serious and needs to be addressed more often. The effects that debris in the ocean can have is unfathomable. Honestly the best way to solve this issue is to educate individuals about how their practices can have numerous effects on the ocean. Although debris in the ocean affect many marine ecosystems, when educating individuals researchers should focus more on the long and short term effects debris in the ocean has on human health. It is unfortunate that people usually become more compliant when they know certain situations can directly impact them.

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