Wasted Waves

Surveying the plastic adrift in the world’s oceans.

Editor’s Note: The following is an account by Anna Cummins, co-founder of The 5 Gyres Institute, a research organization dedicated to tracking plastic waste in the five subtropic ocean gyres.

Looks like we found another ocean of plastic soup,” said one of the crew.

Standing on the bow of the 72-foot Sea Dragon, thousands of miles from land in all directions, our crew of 13 sailors, scientists, filmmakers and citizens gazed silently across an endless azure horizon as a blue plastic hard hat and a disposable razor floated by. We began to take stock: A yellow plastic crate. An orange plastic buoy. A bottle cap. A barnacle-encrusted water bottle. Within an hour, 12 identifiable objects floated by, amid a field of smaller fragments. In the middle of nowhere, between Brazil and South Africa, we were witnessing a similar scenario to the North Pacific Gyre, better known as the infamous, though poorly named, “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. This, however, was the South Atlantic.

Many have by now heard about plastic accumulating in the North Pacific Gyre, a massive, slowly spinning oceanic system between California and Japan formed by opposing currents, winds and the earth’s rotation. Plastic trash from land – the water bottles, bags, toys, cups and other disposable objects we use and lose daily – make their way down streets and streams to the sea. Swept up into the currents of the gyre, these durable petroleum products can travel thousands of miles, breaking into increasingly smaller fragments, but never fully disappearing, swirling endlessly on. The North Pacific Gyre is only one of five subtropical gyres dominating the world’s oceans.

Though virtually unknown to the general public until recently, sailors have observed this phenomenon for decades, navigating through open seascapes dotted with plastic waste. One sailor, Captain Charles Moore, was so disturbed by the sight of this “trashed Pacific,” that in 1997 that he directed his organization, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, (AMRF) to focus on plastic pollution. Just how much was out there? What impact was it having on marine ecosystems? And are there any solutions in sight?

In 2008, I joined Captain Moore, Dr. Marcus Eriksen and three others on AMRF’s eighth expedition across the North Pacific Gyre, a life-changing voyage. Over the course of a month, covering some 4,000 miles, we skimmed the ocean’s surface with a fine-meshed plankton net to collect samples for analysis. From what I had read and heard, I expected to see an “island” of garbage, a tangible mass that I might photograph as proof for naysayers on land. Instead, I was surprised to see endless, pristine blue, marred by a diffuse scattering of consumer products: buckets, toothbrushes, crates, suitcases and countless indistinct plastic fragments.

The samples we sieved from the ocean’s surface told a different story. Every last one contained a rainbow of plastic confetti – small, broken-down fragments sharing space with zooplankton and small fish. The quantities were relatively small, averaging .004 grams per meter squared of ocean (akin to a rice grain sized plastic pellet in a bathtub full of water), but they were consistent. Sample after sample contained at least a handful or more of plastic fragments. And the nearest landmass was some 2,000 miles away.

Perhaps of even greater interest to the public, we collected 671 small, foraging fish to bring to the AMRF lab in Redondo Beach, Calif. These Myctophids, or “lantern fish,” make up roughly 60 percent of the ocean’s fish biomass, and are food for larger species that we eat: tuna, mahimahi and squid. Upon examining their stomach contents, 35 percent of these fish had ingested plastic particles.

The 2008 voyage sparked new questions, projects and a desire to find solutions. Seeing plastic in the stomachs of fish triggered concerns about potential human health risks. Scientists know that plastic particles can absorb pollutants such as Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), and other hydrophobic contaminants. Plastics also contain chemical additives: Phthalates and Bisphenol-A (BPA). Are these chemicals getting into the tissues of fish that eat plastic? And if so, are they working their way up the food chain, onto our dinner plate and into our tissues?

We also began to wonder about the other oceanic gyres, the North and South Atlantic, the South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean. Are the other oceans turning into plastic soups as well?

So we formed a new organization, the 5 Gyres Institute, to continue exploring these questions on a global scale. Our goal was to research all five subtropical gyres, bringing this issue to a wider audience, and seeking a diverse range of solutions. We began with voyage to the North Atlantic Gyre, a 3,000-mile expedition from St. Thomas to Bermuda to the Azores. Despite turbulent winter seas and hurricanes, we found plastic in every one of our 35 surface samples. And we saw more evidence of plastic interacting with marine life, including a fish living inside a plastic bucket, grown too large to escape — perhaps a dark metaphor for our own path.

Upon our return, we were invited to cross the Indian Ocean from Perth, Australia, to Mauritius, exploring our first gyre in the southern hemisphere.

We skirted the edge of the Indian Ocean Gyre and documented concentrations of plastic waste similar to the two northern hemisphere gyres. More recently, our expedition across the South Atlantic Gyre gathered the same plethora of plastic waste in varying states of degradation. Civilization has plasticized our seas in less than half a century. Two thirds of the Earth’s surface carries a thin veneer of hardened petroleum, synthesized into long carbon chains that are indigestible, mimic food, absorb oil-loving toxins, and are finding their way into the fish we harvest to feed the world. Where do we go from here?

The knee-jerk response from nearly everyone that hears of this problem is, “Well, just go clean it up.” This fanciful notion is analogous to sieving the Sahara desert for cigarette butts, or vacuuming America’s highways for bubblegum wrappers. Not an impossible task, just impractical. What we have found is that the pace of plastic production, consumption and loss to the sea is not matched by increased accumulation in the gyres. Scientists in the North Atlantic and North Pacific have conducted 20- and 10-year longitudinal studies, respectively, and found no great trend in plastic accumulation. So where does it go?

If we stop the input of plastic, the ocean will regurgitate its waste. Islands in the gyres, like Hawaii and Bermuda, are natural nets for floating debris. Pacific islanders have relied on this activity for years to bring them giant logs from mainland forests. Gyres also wobble east and west, so a plastic bottle cap spinning in the North Pacific for a decade may find it’s way to the coast of Japan or California as the edges of gyre currents brush the mainland. If we stop adding more, we’ll only have to clean our shores. Beach cleanup is gyre cleanup.

The challenge we face today is minimizing loss and maximizing recovery of the plastic we consume. This requires working far upstream, beyond our beaches and rivers, beyond storm drains, to the products we create. Design for Recyclability, Extended Producer Responsibility, and Product Stewardship, are a few strategies that work within the economic models of plastic producers. Legislative efforts to reduce the production and consumption of the most wasteful culprits, like plastic bags and foamed polystyrene, are working around the world. What we can all agree on is that our oceans are vital to our quality of life. Keeping that as our ultimate objective, we can surely solve this problem.

Anna Cummins and her husband, Dr. Marcus Eriksen, are the the co-founders of The 5 Gyres Institute, researching and communicating the issue of plastic marine pollution in the world’s oceans. The two have studied plastic waste in the North Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and Indian Ocean Gyres, and will cross the South Pacific Gyre in March 2011.

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