Plastic debris in the open ocean

Andres Cozar, Fidel Echevarría, Juan Ignácio Gonzaĺez-Gordillo, Xabier Irigoien, Bárbara Úbeda, Santiago Hernandez-Leon, Álvaro T. Palma, Sandra Navarro, Juan García-de-Lomas, Andrea Ruiz, Ma Luz Fernández De Puelles, Carlos M. Duarte

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2164 Scopus citations


There is a rising concern regarding the accumulation of floating plastic debris in the open ocean. However, the magnitude and the fate of this pollution are still open questions. Using data from the Malaspina 2010 circumnavigation, regional surveys, and previously published reports, we show a worldwide distribution of plastic on the surface of the open ocean, mostly accumulating in the convergence zones of each of the five subtropical gyres with comparable density. However, the global load of plastic on the open ocean surface was estimated to be on the order of tens of thousands of tons, far less than expected. Our observations of the size distribution of floating plastic debris point at important size-selective sinks removing millimeter-sized fragments of floating plastic on a large scale. This sink may involve a combination of fast nano-fragmentation of the microplastic into particles of microns or smaller, their transference to the ocean interior by food webs and ballasting processes, and processes yet to be discovered. Resolving the fate of the missing plastic debris is of fundamental importance to determine the nature and significance of the impacts of plastic pollution in the ocean.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10239-10244
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number28
StatePublished - Jun 30 2014

Bibliographical note

KAUST Repository Item: Exported on 2020-10-01
Acknowledgements: We thank Pakea Bizkaia and the Chilean Navy, which contributed to the sample collection, and K. L. Law, M. C. Goldstein, M. J. Doyle, M. Eriksen, J. Reisser, and their collaborators for their available data. We also thank S. Loiselle and J. Ruiz for his useful suggestions in writing the paper. This research was funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness through the Malaspina 2010 expedition project (Consolider-Ingenio 2010, CSD2008-00077) and the Migrants and Active Flux in the Atlantic Ocean project (CTM2012-39587-C04-01). Original data reported in this paper are freely available at This is Campus de Excelencia Internacional del Mar (CEIMAR) Publication 58.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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