Earth Has a Hidden Plastic Problem—Scientists Are Hunting It Down

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Trillions of tiny particles generated by our plastic-reliant society are polluting environments worldwide.

During a research cruise to the Sargasso Sea in fall 1971 marine biologist Ed Carpenter first noticed peculiar, white specks floating amidst the mats of brown sargassum seaweed. After some investigating he discovered they were tiny bits of plastic. He was stunned. If thousands of the broken down particles were showing up in in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, 550 miles from any mainland, he says, “I figured it’s all over the place.”

Carpenter, now at San Francisco State University, published his observations March 17, 1972, in Science. They were the first inkling plastic pollution is not limited to the plastic bags, soft drink bottles and other visible trash strewn along coastlines and gathering in the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vortex of currents that concentrates debris in the Pacific Ocean.

This is the first of a three-part series in Scientific American that examines our growing understanding of the scope and impacts of microplastics pollution. Read part one HERE.