Researchers who were mapping an Atlantic Ocean counterpart to the now-famous Great Pacific Garbage Patch discovered an anomaly: despite the ongoing increase in the use of plastic, the concentration of broken-down floating plastic bits at the surface has not changed over the years. As the New York Times science blog puts it:
Dragging plankton nets across the ocean surface, researchers from the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass., collected tens of thousands of pieces of plastic debris, most of them no larger than a pencil eraser. The findings were compared with 22 years of similar data on marine debris in the region collected by undergraduate students. Surprisingly, no increase was seen.
"The whereabouts of the 'missing plastic’ is unknown," the researchers concluded in a statement announcing the findings.
Possibly the plastic bits have sunk deeper into the ocean , weighted down by algae growth or "driven down by strong winds deeper into the mixed layer." There, like the fine droplets of dispersant-laced oil lingering deep in the Gulf of Mexico , they can leach poison as they slowly break down.
Whatever has been happening to the missing bits, there's plenty more garbage in the sea. The researchers concluded that we have barely begun exploring the exciting world of floating garbage dumps:
Maximenko’s model predicts three other ocean "garbage patches" that have yet to be found: one in the South Atlantic, one in the South Pacific, and one in the South Indian Ocean. These patches are in regions that ships rarely visit.