A new study published in the PLOS ONE scientific journal yesterday estimates that more than 250,000 tons of plastic – or enough to fill nearly 40,000 garbage trucks – is currently polluting the world’s oceans, the Associated Press reported.

The study, which aims to help better understand the impact of the plastic waste on fish, seabirds, and the entire marine ecosystem as a whole, found that the plastic is broken up into more than five trillion pieces, with pieces larger than eight inches accounting for about 75 percent of that.

Researchers found that the amount of plastic, to their surprise, was fairly evenly spread among the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, with the Northern accounting for 55.6 percent of particles and the South accounting for 56.8 percent.

The authors also pointed out that their study only involved plastic on the ocean surface and “[does] not account for the potentially massive amount of plastic present on shorelines, one the seabed, suspended in the water column, and within organisms.”

Kara Lavender Law of the Sea Education Association, told the AP that studying the plastic waste could help scientists understand how it affects the environment, including the food chain from microorganisms all the way up to humans.

“Am I being poisoned by eating the fish on my plate?” Law asked. “We have very little knowledge of the chain of events that could lead to that. But it’s a plausible scenario that plastic ingested at lower levels of the food web could have consequences at higher levels…”

“Plastics attract and become coated with toxic substances like PCBs and other pollutants,” reported the New York Times. “Researcher are concerned that fish and other organisms that consume the plastics could reabsorb the toxic substances and pass them along to other predators when they are eaten.”

Marcus Eriksen, lead author of the study, said the sheer amount of waste makes collecting the floating garbage “impractical,” but his group “has had some success with campaigns to get manufacturers of health and beauty aids to stop using small scrubbing beads of plastic in their products.”

“We’ve got to put some of the onus on producers,” Eriksen said. “If you make it, take it back, or make sure the ocean can deal with it an environmentally harmless way.”

Read the full study at PLOS ONE.