Choked with debris

LIHUE — A new study estimates about 269,000 tons of plastic — enough to fill more than 38,500 garbage trucks — is floating in the world’s oceans.

And anyone who has visited a beach lately, Kauai’s included, has seen the result. 

“The magnitude of the problem is just so great,” said Carl Berg of the Surfrider Foundation Kauai Chapter. 

The plastic is broken up into more than 5 trillion pieces, according to the findings published Wednesday in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. The study is the latest as scientists are trying to better understand how much of the synthetic material is entering the oceans and how it’s affecting fish, seabirds and the larger marine ecosystem.

The study’s lead author is Markus Eriksen of the 5 Gyres Institute, an organization that aims to reduce plastic in the oceans.

Another organization contributing to that same effort is Kauai Surfrider, hosting beach cleanups and patrolling the island for derelict fishing nets and other marine debris.

Last year alone, Berg said Surfrider and its volunteers hauled 25 tons of debris off Kauai’s coast. That accounts for nearly 1/10,000 of the amount estimated in the new study.

“And we’re just this dinky island in the middle of the Pacific,” Berg said.

Alarmingly, the study’s findings may only scratch the surface.

To gather data, researchers dragged a fine mesh net at the sea surface to gather small pieces. Observers on boats counted larger items. They used computer models to calculate estimates for tracts of ocean not surveyed. The study only measured plastic floating at the surface. Plastic on the ocean floor wasn’t included.

Today, Surfrider mainly targets large debris. Starting in January, however, Berg said it will begin going after the littler pieces.

“In the new year, we are targeting some of the smaller stuff in addition to the great big nets and our general plastic cleanup,” he said. “We recognize that the smaller stuff that they’re talking about (in the study) is a real problem.”

Ultimately, Berg said cleaning up beaches won’t fix the problem. Instead, there must be a proactive effort to reduce the use of plastics. 

“We have to stop it from getting in the ocean,” he said. 

Studying the amount of plastic in the ocean will help scientists understand how the material will affect the environment and potentially the food chain. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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