There's no such thing as a giant floating garbage patch. The reality is much, much worse.
Musician Jack Johnson has released a 30-minute film called The Smog of the Sea. It documents a week-long expedition that he and other ‘citizen scientists’ took through the Sargasso Sea of the North Atlantic, to explore the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean.
Guided by ocean researcher Marcus Erikson of 5 Gyres, the participants were stunned to learn that there’s no such thing as a giant floating garbage patch anywhere in the world. Instead, plastic is everywhere, which is a far worse reality. Erikson explains:
“The public sees an island of trash. They picture this giant place that you can go visit, this Jules Verne-esque kind of space. It doesn’t exist at all. It’s much worse than that. It’s this plastic smog of small particles that are being ingested by billions of organisms in the world’s oceans.”
These particles have broken down to the size of fish larvae or zooplankton. They float on the surface of the ocean and eventually sink to greater depths, where they get swept up in the deep ocean currents forever. Layers of plastic are forming deep within the water, hence Erikson’s disturbing description: “It’s the fossil of our time.”
The team featured in the film focuses on collecting data using a trawl that’s dragged alongside the boat. The goal is to get an idea of how much plastic is on the surface. Participants pick through clumps of seaweed, sorting out the fragments that range in size from barely-visible nylon rope threads to bottle caps and shopping bags. They lay out their samples on graph paper.
Many of the larger pieces have teeth marks in them, which show that sea animals and fish have tried to eat them. Many do successfully ingest plastic, which is cause for great concern. As Erikson points out, plastics are not benign. They absorb pollutants in high concentrations – persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that include chemicals like PCBs, DDT, etc. These travel up the food chain, absorbed by any predator, including humans, that eats a contaminated fish.
“It’s the fossil of our time.”
Matt Prindiville, executive director of think-tank Upstream and participant in the expedition, believes the problem of plastic pollution needs to be addressed at the source:
“It’s really about fairness. If you make something, you need to take responsibility for the environmental and social impacts of that product. When consumer goods companies sell all of their products wrapped in packaging to developing countries that don’t have any solid waste or recycling infrastructure, we have rivers of plastic that are literally flowing into the ocean."
As a society, we have become so accustomed to having single-use plastics at our disposal that it’s difficult to think of another way of buying and packaging; but it’s the hope of people like Erikson and Johnson that the analogy of plastic pollution as the smog of the sea will generate behavioral shifts. After all, smog is a much scarier concept than a tangible, tangled mass of plastic. If we understand the ramifications of this plastic and the impact it’s having, we might start to question our blind acceptance of this waste.
The Smog of the Sea is a hard-hitting film that everyone should take time to watch. Made by Emmy-nominated director Ian Cheney of King Corn, The Search for General Tso, and The City Dark, it’s got an artsy, grassroots feel to it that adds to the urgency of the message. The soundtrack features original compositions by Jack Johnson, including a new track titled “Fragments.”
The film is available to stream online for a limited time only.