Each year, around 8 million tons of plastic make it into the world’s oceans after being directly tossed into bodies of water or drifting across landfills on the wind.
That’s “five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world,” according to environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck, who spoke with The New York Times.
All this plastic will outweigh the total weight of fish by 2050.
Now, thanks to climate change, a lot of that plastic is journeying up to Arctic waters.
Read More: How a Tiny Alaska Village Is Leading the Way on Climate Change
Not many people live in the Arctic, so when scientists recently learned that trillions of pieces of plastic are in the region, the reason seemed clear — they had been carried by currents.
Since waters are warming around the world, warm currents are penetrating the Arctic in ways that hadn’t happened before. And nearly all the oceans of the world share at least one thing in common: they harbor lots of plastic. So as warm waters travel north, and as melting ice in the region opens up previously remote areas, plastic is arriving in heaps.
Most of this plastic is extremely small, suggesting that it has been in the water for a long time and has broken down. This theory was also reinforced by the fact that plastic film, which breaks down quickly, wasn’t found.
Read More: 5 Artists Turning the Ocean’s Plastic Waste into Stunningly Beautiful Designs
All of this plastic is blanketing the Arctic’s sea floors, bobbing in surface waters, and merging with the ice.
In the past, it was thought that plastic gathered in large gyres, guided by colliding currents.
But that’s not true. Instead, plastic scatters everywhere.
The consequences of this infiltration aren’t fully understood yet, because it has only recently been studied, but a few frightening effects are known.
Plastic is often confused for food by marine creatures and is consumed, which can poison them or fill their stomachs, creating the illusion that they’re full, until they starve to death. It also leaches harmful chemicals into the waters, which alters the quality of water and can further endanger marine life. As it blankets sea floors, it can choke out small life that lives down there.
Read More: WHO: Pollution Kills 1.7 Million Kids Under 5 Each Year
These are just some of the topline consequences. A lot more will be learned in the years ahead, as plastic ages and as the overall concentration of plastic increases.
But as the consequences become more well known, more efforts will be made to fix the problem.
So far, many countries around the world are beginning to outright ban plastic to eliminate pollution.
Then there are the efforts to replace plastic with environmentally friendly products.
Finally, there are pioneering inventors and scientists who are creating ways to purge the world’s oceans of plastic.
If these trends continue, maybe sea creatures will one day be able swim the world’s oceans without bumping into plastic every few feet.