Home » Green Investing, Journalism, Video

‘Shocking’ amount of plastic pollutes oceans

2 August 2010 No Comment

By Helen Kaiao Chang

See original story on SDNN

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The ocean may offer beautiful views and excellent water. But it is also becoming the world’s biggest trash dump.

Miriam Goldstein, a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, wanted to find out just how big. Particularly, in terms of plastic.

What she found astounded her.

“It’s pretty shocking to hear there’s all this debris not far away from land,” she said. “All the scientists and researchers were surprised and shocked by the amount of plastic out there.”

Goldstein was part of a scientific boat expedition measuring the amount of plastic waste particles piling up in the ocean. She gave some of her findings during a press conference Thursday at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, located along the La Jolla beach shore where people were swimming.

The most telling of the findings showed plastic everywhere. In 100 samples taken over 1,700 miles of ocean, they found plastic debris in every single sample.

The Seaplex expedition – short for Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition – took place Aug 2 to 22 this year in a region where debris tends to concentrate, called the Pacific Gyre. This area, also known as the ‘Pacific Garbage Patch’ is about the size of Texas. The goal was to collect sample debris, which will be used for research at the science labs.

The expedition was the most advanced scientific undertaking on the subject, said Tony Haymet, director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Previous research has not yielded as much scientific data.

Human footprint

Researchers involved in the project said the results have big implications for the environment.

“It shows that the vastness of our human footprint in the ecosystem is one of the biggest in the world,” said Doug Woodring, co-founder of Project Kaisei, a foundation dedicated to cleaning up the ocean that helped sponsor the expedition. “This plastic is pervasive and it impedes a very, very large portion of the ocean.”

The $387,000 expedition was funded by several groups: the UC Ship Funds for $190,000; Project Kaisei, $140,000; and the National Science Foundation, $57,000.

Plastic everywhere

Goldstein and her team went to sea aboard the New Horizon, a Scripps research vessel. They went to an area called the North Pacific Ocean Gyre, about 1,000 miles from California’s coast.

The debris found ranged from plastic buckets and shoe soles to tiny bits of plastic the size of fingernails. The tiny pieces are the same size as zooplankton – the feeding staple of many fish and birds. The tiny debris was pervasive, found at surface and deep sea levels.

The scientists have yet to determine exactly where the plastic pollution comes from, said Goldstein. But Peter Niiler, a Scripps professor of oceanography, said that previous research had found that debris came from various countries around the Pacific Rim.

“It is not only the ocean in specific areas, but the entire Pacific Rim is full of this plastic,” Niiler said.

Impact on marine life

In the next six months, Goldstein and her associate graduate students will do research to find out how much the plastic is affecting marine life. The areas they will be studying include:

– Toxicity

– Feeding patterns

– Invasive species

– Hard surfaces

For example, the plastic toxins may be poisoning fish and marine life.

The debris can also interfere with feeding patterns, since tiny plastic pieces of plastic are the same size as zooplankton. It is already known that albatross and other birds are choking from eating plastic.

Floating plastic can also create invasive species. This is because fish like to gather beneath hard surfaces – the plastic – and end up in places they normally would not be.

“Open ocean fish really like to be underneath stuff, so you would change the movement of fish across the sea,” said Goldstein. “We saw tropical fish (aggregating under plastic debris) that wouldn’t necessarily be in the open sea.”

This could have a negative impact on native species of an area.

“The ecosystem out there is very old, very diverse and very well-adapted to living in those open ocean areas,” said Goldstein. “Having new animals in there would not necessarily be a positive thing.”

Trip mascot

One of the most unusual things the scientists found was a plush dog caught in the trolling nets. It had barnacles growing near its left eye.

The scientists cleaned it up, named it Lucky, and now call it their mascot.

Harvesting plastic

Science and policy leaders could use the research results to find appropriate solutions, said the researchers. This includes:

– Cleaning up existing pollution

– Enforcing international laws against ocean pollution

– Harvesting the plastic for recycling

Recycling the plastic could have large uses, said Niiler. “This is valuable stuff.”

Future expedition

Following the success of this expedition, Scripps plans to send another to explore the South Pacific Gyre, a much larger and more polluted area. This second expedition is targeted for 2010 or 2011 and is expected to cost $2 million.

Follow Helen on Twitter @HelenChang.

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.