Leading article: Plastic death on the seas

The discovery of another huge concentration of rubbish, this one in the Atlantic and comparable in size to the now notorious "Great Pacific Garbage Patch", is a stark reminder of how, despite the warnings of ecologists that have been ringing in our ears for decades, we continue to throw away more and more plastic, regardless of the consequences.

As the new study revealing the existence of this concentration points out, between 1976 and 2008 the amount of plastic thrown out worldwide increased by 500 per cent. That is a little abstract, so let us bring it down to the level of personal behaviour. In 1976 milk was still delivered in recyclable glass bottles; we washed ourselves with bars of soap, and if we went to a café for coffee or tea, we drank it out of ceramic cups. People went to the shops with what were called shopping bags, sometimes very practically equipped with wheels.

Very few of us probably sang hallelujah on the day when the last dairy float was retired or shower gel gave soap the elbow, and the movement to limit the use of plastic bags in supermarkets has gained some ground in recent years. But year after year it has served the interests of our commercial masters to get us to use and then throw away more and more plastic, and the resistance we have collectively put up has been pathetic. The great Atlantic garbage patch is a floating rebuke to our consciences.

The evil consequences of these massive concentrations are legion, and include the entanglement of marine fauna and its ingestion by seabirds and marine organisms ranging from plankton up to sea mammals. If we try to imagine these seaborne rubbish dumps we probably visualise a floating slum of empty shampoo bottles and discarded supermarket bags. In fact the 64,000 pieces of plastic caught in plankton nets by researchers at 6,100 different locations in the Atlantic were all very tiny, but that does not make them any less damaging when swallowed by a seagull or a turtle.

There are still many unknowns for the researchers to tease out: why has the surface concentration not actually increased in the past 22 years, despite the massive increase in the amount thrown out? Where is the new stuff ending up? Can we expect the day when another team locates a dump of sunken plastic on the ocean floor? In the meantime the message from the Atlantic is simple: the war against plastic is being lost. The waste remains, and kills.