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Chinese cargo vessels responsible for most plastic debris in Atlantic Ocean, study says

A new study involving a Canadian researcher suggests that Chinese merchant ships – and not land-based sources – might be the leading cause of ocean plastic waste.


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October 2, 2019 by Canadian Plastics

A new study involving a Canadian researcher suggests that Chinese merchant ships – and not land-based sources – might be the leading cause of plastic debris floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

The study is the result of three trips made by researchers from Canada and South Africa to Inaccessible Island – which sits in the South Atlantic Ocean between South America and Africa, in the world’s most remote inhabited archipelago – in 1984, 2009 and 2018 to study the plastic debris accumulated on the island. The researchers found that 75 per cent of the plastic bottles that had washed ashore appear to come from Asia, with most made in China.

“Many oceanic islands suffer high levels of stranded debris, particularly those near subtropical gyres where floating debris accumulates,” the authors wrote in their report. “During the last 3 decades, plastic drink bottles have shown the fastest growth rate of all debris types on remote Inaccessible Island.”

During the 1980s, the report says, most bottles drifted to the island from South America, “carried 3,000 km by the west wind drift.” But by 2009, the study found, a change was evident. “The recent manufacture dates [of the bottles] indicate that few bottles could have drifted from Asia, and presumably are dumped from ships”. The recent date stamps – 90 per cent of which were only two years old or newer – ruled out the possibility that they could have travelled from land via ocean currents, which would take between three to five years, the researchers said.

Additionally, the researchers found that while the number of Asian fishing vessels in the South Atlantic have remained stable, the number of cargo vessels from China had increased since the 1980s, which narrowed down merchant vessels as the primary source.

“Our results question the widely held assumption that most plastic debris at sea comes from land-based sources,” the authors concluded.

One of the study authors, Robert Ronconi, is affiliated with the Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment and Climate Change Canada, in Dartmouth, N.S.

For more on the study, click on this link.