Microplastic pollution in oceans is far worse than feared, say scientists

The number of tiny plastic pieces polluting the world’s oceans is vastly greater than thought, new research indicates.

The work reveals the highest microplastic pollution yet discovered anywhere in the world in a river near Manchester in the UK. It also shows that the major floods in the area in 2015-16 flushed more than 40bn pieces of microplastic into the sea.

The surge of such a vast amount of microplastic from one small river catchment in a single event led the scientists to conclude that the current estimate for the number of particles in the ocean – five trillion – is a major underestimate.

Microplastics include broken-down plastic waste, synthetic fibres and beads found in personal hygiene products. They are known to harm marine life, which mistake them for food, and can be consumed by humans too via seafood, tap water or other food. The risk to people is still not known, but there are concerns that microplastics can accumulate toxic chemicals and that the tiniest could enter the bloodstream.

“Given their pervasive and persistent nature, microplastics have become a global environmental concern and a potential risk to human populations,” said Rachel Hurley from the University of Manchester and colleagues in their report, published in Nature Geoscience.

Microplastics map

The team analysed sediments in 10 rivers within about 20km of Manchester and all but one of the 40 sites showed microplastic contamination. After the winter floods of 2015-16, they took new samples and found that 70% of the microplastics had been swept away, a total of 43bn particles or 850kg. Of those, about 17bn would float in sea water.

“This is a small to medium sized catchment in the north of England, it is one flood event, it is just one year – there is no way that [5tn global] estimate is right,” said Hurley. The researchers said total microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans “must be far higher”.

The worst hotspot, on the River Tame, had more than 500,000 microplastic particles per square metre in the top 10cm of river bed. This is the worst concentration ever reported and 50% more than the previous record, in beach sediments from South Korea. But Hurley said there may well be worse places yet to me measured: “We don’t have much data for huge rivers in the global south, which may have so much more plastic in.”

“There is so much effort going into the marine side of the microplastic problem but this research shows it is really originating upstream in river catchments,” she said. “We need to control those sources to even begin to clean up the oceans.”

About a third of microplastics found by the team before the flooding were microbeads, tiny spheres used in personal care products and banned in the UK in January. This high proportion surprised the scientists, who said the beads may well also derive from industrial uses, which are not covered by the ban.

Erik van Sebille, at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and and not part of the research team, said the work does support a much higher estimate of global microplastic pollution in the oceans: “I’m not surprised by that conclusion. In 2015, we found that 99% of all plastic in the ocean is not on the surface anymore. The problem is that we don’t know where that 99% of plastic is. Is it on beaches, the seafloor, in marine organisms? Before we can start thinking about cleaning up the plastic, we’ll first need to know how it’s distributed.”

Anne Marie Mahon, at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Ireland and also not part of the research team, said: “I am actually glad to see the estimate going up a bit, just to show there is this huge contribution coming from the freshwater system.” However, she cautioned that not all the microplastics shown in the study to be flushed out by the floods necessarily entered the sea – some may have been washed over the floodplain instead.

“It is very difficult to tell how this plastic may be affecting us,” Hurley said. “But they definitely do enter our bodies. The missing gap is we need to know if we are getting contaminants inside us as a result of plastic particles.”

The smallest particles that could be analysed in the new research were 63 microns, roughly the width of a human hair. But much smaller plastic particles will exist, and Hurley said: “It is the really small stuff we get worried about, as they can get through the membranes in the gut and in the bloodstream – that is the real fear.”

Blue Planet gives super-rich their new toys – submersibles

World’s ultra-rich are buying subs for up to £30m to indulge in deep ocean exploring

Triton submersibles






Doing a David Attenborough – Triton submersibles in deep waters off Lyford Cay, Bahamas.
Photograph: Nick Verola

A new toy has surfaced on the must-have list of leisure options for the world’s billionaire class: private submersibles they can use to explore the oceans – or even use as James Bond-style means of escape if their superyacht should come under attack.

The global super-rich last year bought about 30 submersibles – with price tags of up to £30m – according to manufacturer Triton. These private submarines are known as submersibles because they are not independently powered, instead relying on batteries that have to be recharged by a support vessel.

Louise Harrison, Triton’s European sales director, said in recent months the BBC’s Blue Planet series, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, had led to a “huge spike” in demand from wealthy buyers wanting to explore the deep and get up close to coral reefs, stingrays and whales.

There is a growing number of super-rich, she said, who want more than to merely luxuriate in their good fortune. “The super-rich aren’t happy to sit on the back of their yachts with a G&T anymore. The modern ones and the young ones want to go to Antarctica and the Galápagos Islands,” she said. “They want to see what’s beneath the surface as well as what’s on top. They have seen Blue Planet, and they want to get down there and see it for themselves.”

Harrison told hundreds of delegates attending the Superyacht Investor conference in London this week that submersible manufacturers had their best year in 2017, as there has been “definitive change in direction among owners to use their superyachts for new experiences”.

“The industry sold 25-30 submersibles last year,” she said. “It may not sound like a lot but they are priced at a minimum of £1m and up to £30m. It is a lot of money.”

The Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson, the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and the US hedge fund manger Ray Dalio are among billionaires who have already splashed out on underwater vessels. Indeed, one may not be enough: Dalio said he was so “wild about ocean exploration” that he bought two submersibles, which were used in the filming of the second series of Blue Planet.

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“The underwater world is much larger than the above-water world, has more unidentified species than the above-water world, is essential to our wellbeing, is incredibly interesting and valuable, and is mostly unexplored,” said Dalio, the world’s 90th richest person with a $14.6bn (£10.3bn) fortune.

“For those reasons, and for the thrill of it, I am wild about ocean exploration. I explore the ocean personally while tagging along with great ocean scientists and explorers, and I financially support ocean exploration that goes on way beyond me – including sharing these thrills with the public through various media outlets and museum exhibits.”

Dalio’s submersibles – named Nadir and Deep Rover – are based on his $50m expedition-focused superyacht, Alucia.

The Nadir is a Triton 3300/3 model capable of diving to a depth of 1,000 metres with a pilot and two passengers on board and sells for about $3m depending on fixtures and fittings. “Yes, it’s a lot of money,” Harrison said. “But do you want to go diving in a cheap submersible?”

Harrison said the growth in submersibles had been driven by a rapid improvement in acrylic technology, which means they can be fitted with large clear bubble domes, giving a 360-degree views of the ocean. “When you’re underwater the acrylic sort of disappears and you feel like you are actually in the ocean. It’s a bit dreamlike when you’re down there,” she said. “The acrylic is the expensive bit, as the technology has only recently got so advanced that you can go that deep. It is very, very expensive stuff – you don’t want to scratch it.”

Harrison said most customers say they are interested in buying submersibles for exploration, but some have also inquired about using them as “panic rooms or escape vessels”.

The submersible ‘Nadir’ used by Blue Planet II team to film the Deep episode. It was one of many subs used to film the series



The submersible ‘Nadir’ used by Blue Planet II team to film the Deep episode. It was one of many subs used to film the series. Photograph: Luis Lamar

Triton’s biggest competitor, Holland’s U-Boat Worx, has designed an ultra-lightweight submersible model specifically for superyachts. Its Super Yacht Sub Three is piloted from the rear so the passengers can get the best view of the ocean from the front of the bubble dome. The company said: “This submarine is aimed at the yacht market … [it] delivers both performance and luxury.”

Triton, which is based in Florida, has partnered with British luxury car group Aston Martin to work on a new $4m three-man submersible codenamed Project Neptune. The subs, which are expected to hit the market later this year, will dive to 1,650ft and have a top speed of 3.5 miles an hour.

Marek Reichman, Aston Martin’s chief creative officer, said the company had decided to expand into submersibles following interest expressed by its richest customers. “Those superyacht people, what they want to experience is changing,” he said. “It’s no longer about just having a launch or having your tender. It’s about having some other way of entertaining your guests.”

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