Plastic is rapidly disappearing from the oceans, say scientists. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers assumed there should be millions of tons of plastic in out oceans. A large chunk of plastic floats in open water, forming “gyres.” But a team of researchers found that a maximum of 40,000 tons of plastic is floating on the surface of oceans, far less than what they were expecting.

Plastic disappearing

No significant increase in the amount of plastic in ocean since 1980s

Exposure to waves and sunlight causes plastics to break down into microscopic fragments. But even those fragments are durable enough to last thousands of years. Researchers analyzed 3070 samples of ocean water from across the globe. They found that the amount of plastic on the surface of oceans hasn’t seen any significant increase since 1980s. Notably, global plastic production has more than quadrupled in the same period, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Increased production means increased quantities in our oceans. If the plastic isn’t floating on the surface, where is it? Lead author of the study Andres Cozar of the University of Cadiz in Spain said it’s difficult to find an accurate answer. But there are clues that can help us understand where all that garbage might be going.

Marine creatures are eating plastic

Researchers said that the missing millions of tons of garbage could be finding its way to the stomachs of marine animals. They may mistake the small bits of plastic for zooplankton. The fish gobble them up. Over time, the plastic may go deeper in the ocean due to excretion or as the fish dies. The Oregon State University ocean ecologist Angelicque White, who was not directly involved in the study, said that we still have a lot to learn about how plastic functions in the sea water. Plastic is habitat; micro-organisms thrive on it.

California’s Farallon Institute for Advanced Ecosystem Research oceanographer Peter Davison said that organisms growing on plastic or the weight of animal feces clinging to it could be dragging it down. Or microbes could be breaking it down into much smaller pieces that are undetectable. But one thing that is “indisputable” is that marine creatures are eating plastic waste.