Ocean plastic is like smog, not a floating island

Collecting a sample of plastic pollution.
© 5 Gyres Institute

The founders of 5 Gyres, a non-profit dedicated to researching and fighting ocean pollution, want to change the way people think about plastics in the seas.

“It’s not a patch, a soup, or an island,” said Marcus Eriksen. “The metaphor we should use is plastic smog.” He continues the metaphor, explaining that every drainpipe is like a horizontal smokestack dispersing a cloud of tiny plastic bits out into our waterways and spreading into the ocean.

Eriksen and an eclectic crew assembled by 5 Gyres have spent the past three weeks on a research expedition, called S.E.A. Change, sampling the Atlantic ocean and assessing plastic pollution. The voyage began in the Bahamas and ended in New York City and is the 16th expedition chartered by 5 Gyres.

© 5 Gyres. Members of the 5 Gyres S.E.A. Change expedition using a sieve to separate a sample.

Last year, Eriksen published a paper attempting to assess how many pieces of plastic are out there—estimating that some 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating through the world’s seas. Five trillion pieces of plastic may seem staggering, but it should be kept in mind that the vast majority of these pieces are tiny—microplastics the size of a grain of rice or smaller.

5 Gyres co-founder Anna Cummins said the organization is working to build communities of people who can act as “ambassadors for change.” This most recent research trip included a number of activists, including Annie McBride and Reece Pacheco of Surfrider’s New York chapter, who participated in a citizen science sampling protocol that 5 Gyres is working to develop. Singer Jack Johnson also joined for a leg of the voyage, recycling pioneer Mike Biddle and several students.

Earlier this week, the crew sampled the waterways around New York City, before anchoring off of the southern shore of Brooklyn. Pacheco said that seeing the plastic content of New York’s water, not far from where he often surfs in the Rockaways, was a particularly visceral experience. In addition to tampon applicators, dime bags and pre-production plastic pellets, the samples from the city’s waterways also included many itty bitty unidentifiable pieces.

“Surfers and swimmers ingest this stuff accidentally all the time,” he said.

© Reece Pacheco. Hudson river macroplastics, arranged by Marcus Eriksen.

Dr. Max Liboiron, one of the scientists on the expedition, said that these tiny bits of plastic attract toxins in the oceans. As microplastics are ingested by fish, which in turn are eaten by larger fish, birds or other predators, endocrine disruptors bioaccumulate and move up the food chain. Liboiron said that this is "one of the most concrete forms of harm to humans” posed by microplastics, particularly communities who are dependent on seafood.

And the expedition found evidence that fish are eating microplastics. Sometimes small fish are caught by the sampling trawls. Liboiron dissected most of them (some were too small to be safely cut open on a moving vessel), and found that 20 percent had plastic in their digestive systems.

Liboiron is working on a new water sampling method that uses baby tights and can be made for just $12. This method is being compared to more expensive sampling trawls, and although further validation is still needed, could be part of a future citizen science initiative.

Cummins said there’s a “huge gap in public understanding” about ocean pollution. Many people imagine bobbing bottles and floating bags, but in reality the ocean quickly chews up this garbage into a much smaller and more insidious form of pollution.

© 5 Gyres. Singer Jack Johnson with a sample of plastic debris pulled from the ocean.

This misconception is why so many people are trying to fix the problem with ocean clean-up projects. Eriksen says they may help some, but he doesn’t have much hope for “crazy gadgets trying to sieve the oceans.”

Instead, 5 Gyres has focused on upstream solutions that reduce the seemingly endless stream of disposable plastics. The organization has been pushing for bans on microbeads, the tiny plastic balls used in personal care products, which are so small that municipal sewage facilities are unable to capture them. The organization has also lent its support to plastic bag bans around the U.S.

Again, the smog metaphor is useful. When we talk about how to reduce air pollution, we don’t only focus on air filtering technologies, but also understand that we need to reduce or stop its source. The researchers at 5 Gyres argue we need to treat plastic pollution the same way.

Tags: 5 gyres | Oceans | Plastics | Pollution

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