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Can ocean plastic cleaning projects actually clean all the ocean plastic?

Our oceans have a plastic problem, and relying on tech that aims to collect plastic debris from the ocean’s surface won’t be enough to solve it, according to a new study. With the mass amounts of plastic that get funneled into our oceans from land—between 5 and 13 million tonnes annually—ocean clean-up technologies fall short, and can never catch up. The only way to truly reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean, researchers say, is to stop it from getting there in the first place.

In a study published in Science of the Total Environment this week, researchers at the University of Exeter looked at the ability of floating ocean clean-up tech to actually clean up the ocean. The main problem is that not all ocean waste floats at the top of the water for easy collecting; according to 2014 research, just a tiny percent—269,000 tonnes (in the form of about 5.25 trillion plastic particles)—is at the ocean’s surface. That amount is expected to grow to more than 860,000 tonnes by 2052, by which point experts predict that recycling updates may mean no new plastic pollution is generated (though we’ll still have to contend with all that plastic already in the water).

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