Plastic Bag Found at the Bottom of World’s Deepest Ocean Trench

Plastic Bag Found at the Bottom of World’s Deepest Ocean Trench

Even one of the most remote places on Earth couldn’t hide from the scourge of plastic trash.


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Biology, Conservation, Earth Science, Oceanography

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The Mariana Trench is the deepest point in the ocean. This deep-sea canyon is located in an isolated area of the Pacific Ocean. It extends nearly 10,975 meters (36,000 feet) down — more than 11 kilometers (seven miles). But if you thought such a remote spot on Earth could escape the global infiltration of plastics pollution, you would be wrong.

A recent study revealed that a plastic bag is now the deepest known piece of plastic trash. The bag, the kind used in grocery store checkout lines, was found in the trench. Scientists discovered its presence by looking through the Deep-Sea Debris Database. These undersea photos and videos were logged from 5,010 dives over the past 30 years. The collection was recently made public.

Of the classifiable debris logged in the database, plastic was the most common. Plastic bags in particular made up the largest source of plastic trash. Other rubbish included rubber, metal, wood, cloth and other materials yet to be classified.

Plastic Pollution Is Virtually Everywhere

Most of the plastic — a whopping 89 percent — was from disposable products. These include single-use items like straws, plastic utensils and water bottles.

The Mariana Trench may seem like a dark, lifeless pit. However, it is home to more life than many of us might think. The Okeanos Explorer vessel, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), searched the region's depths in 2016. It found diverse life forms. They included species of deep-sea coral, jellyfish and octopus.

The recent study of plastics pollution found that 17 percent of the images of plastic added to the database showed interactions involving marine life. For example, some animals had become entangled in the debris.

The study is just one among many showing just how widespread plastic pollution has become. Plastic junk is virtually everywhere. To make matters worse, most plastics take hundreds of years or more to break down in nature.

Bringing Awareness To The Problem

Last February, a different study showed that the Mariana Trench also has high levels of overall pollution. The scientists involved in the study developed a theory about the pollutants found there. They believe some of the chemicals may have come from the breakdown of plastics in ocean waters.

Recently, environmental groups have brought more awareness to the problem. For example, plastics pollution was emphasized during events this past Earth Day. However, addressing how plastic gets into the environment requires complex problem-solving. Some plastic waste enters the ocean directly. Trash might be blown from a beach picnic or tossed overboard from ships, for instance. But a study published in 2017 found that most plastic trash reaches the sea from rivers. Ten rivers that flow through heavily populated regions are the main culprits.

Fishing gear is also a major source of the ocean's plastic pollution. A study published last March found these materials made up most of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This Texas-size collection of junk is floating between Hawaii and California.

The ocean clearly contains much more plastic than a single bag in the Mariana Trench. However, this one piece of plastic is not just a wind-flung metaphor for carelessness. It is now a clear indication of how deep an impact humans are having on the planet.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Sarah Gibbens
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

November 27, 2023

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