May’s Monthly Plastic Total

IMG_5919

Tucked into our bin, this month’s total seems neat and manageable.  A closer look, aka dumping it all over my kitchen floor, revealed an expanding smorgasborg of films, bags, caps, containers, bottles, tubes, and tubs.  Included in this pile I found:

-2 Bags stuffed with plastic bags and films (I couldn’t bring myself to individually count them all, this made up the majority of the pile)
-4 Chip Bags
-2 Bubble Wrap Padded Envelopes
-5 Mesh Bags (from lemons, limes, and garlic)
-1 6-pack holder
-1 Toothpaste Tube
-1 Tetra Pak (coconut milk)
-4 plastic cups
-20 Lids
-5 Tubs (cheese, yogurt, pomagranate seeds)
-6 Utensils
-2 Straws
-1 Coffee Bag

Titan being a very good boy and resisting the urge to bury his face in this pile of trash

Titan being a very good boy and resisting the urge to bury his face in this pile of trash

This month I decided to cut back on my totaling posts.  Without weekly tallies I was disconnected from what was accumulating in our plastic bin.  Once covered and out of mind, these pieces now bring back memories of a good times, like our reusable cups from the bacon and beer festival or the wrappers from healthy snacks we snuck into the theater to see the new Star Trek movie.  Dumping it out on my floor felt like flipping through a scrapbook, and I relived my month, good and bad, as I made piles of lids and shoved a bread bag full of plastic films.  In our fast-paced, throw-away culture we never contemplate the life of our waste after we throw it away.  For us, away is still here, in our crawl space.  And week by week be build a scrapbook of memories that will will rediscover at the end of the year.  There is no way we can ignore our plastic footprint this year.

The Giant Pacific Garbage Patch

You have probably heard of the “Giant Pacific Garbage Patch”.  Google it, and you see images like this one:

Disgusting, right?! Well, I hate to break it to you but… that is not the Giant Pacific Garbage Patch.  Like with so many things, what you see in the media is not always factually accurate.  And the persistent myth that there is a floating island of trash swirling in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean is not an accurate description of what we find out there.  Last fall I had the opportunity to travel to the North Pacific Gyre and see it with my own eyes.

What is true is that there is a LOT of plastic in the ocean.  Our research expedition to the North Pacific Gyre found plastic in every single tow!  Plastic was found not only floating at the surface, but in our MOCNESS net, mixed by wind and wave down to depths of 30 feet.  95% of this plastic is smaller than your pinky nail.  SMALLER THAN YOUR PINKY NAIL!

So rather than finding a giant trash island, you find a plastic soup, seasoned liberally with tiny floating plastic bits and the occational larger dumpling, like a buoy or a capped bottle.

On our 37 day voyage we counted 66,077 pieces of plastic in our neuston, manta, and MOCNESS tows, and 2796 from visual surveys.  In total that is 68,873 plastic pieces! Remember, 95% of these pieces were smaller than your pinky nail.

Why is most this plastic so small? Just like we get a sunburn if we stay in the sun too long with no sunscreen, plastic gets sun damage, causing it to photodegrade, or break into smaller pieces. It is not biodegrading — these small pieces are just as persistent as a disposable bottle or utensil.  There is no huge floating island out there.  This microplastic problem presents different challenges than a trash island.

As plastic gets smaller, it becomes ingestible on every level of the food web, from zooplankton to albatross to whales and yes, even to us.  These plastic bits are known to leach and concentrate toxins. If these toxins accumulate in our food, they accumulate in us. Medical professionals are beginning to question whether the abundance of chemicals in the environment could be linked to rising occurances of diabetes, obeisity, autism and ADHD. Even though these plastic pieces are in one of the most remote places on the planet, they could be affecting our health.

The Giant Pacific Garbage Patch is not than a trash island.  It is a threat to marine life.  It is a threat to our health.  And as the creators of all this waste, we are the ones who can reduce our consumption, responsibly manage our waste stream, and innovate ways to create a better future.  Because of this, I write.

How do we study ocean plastic?

Since my voyage to the North Pacific to study plastic, I think the most frequent question I get is: “How big is the garbage patch?”.  What a simple question, with such a complex answer! First, I explain our voyage like drawing a line across a sheet of paper… how much can you learn about the paper by just looking at just that line?? The Pacific Ocean is HUGE, and so is its plastic problem.  It is going to take decades of research to get a better idea of how much plastic is out there.  Secondly, the amount of plastic is always fluctuating, with new plastic being added, and old plastic sinking or leaving the gyre and finding it’s way back to land.  Thirdly, it is hard to study plastic at sea.  Some floats, some sinks, some is ingested by marine life… how do you come up with a size of the problem?

Scientists are often limited by the technology that is available to them.  Perhaps someone will come along with a brilliant new innovation to determine the scope of the Giant Pacific Garbage Patch.  For now, the data set grows, giving us a bigger, but still incomplete image.  This is how we studied plastic as sea:

neusty

Neuston Net: This net is traditionally used to study plankton, the microscopic community of animals and algae adrift in the ocean currents.  The fine mesh of this net lets water pass through, but traps the copepods, pteropods, salps, and other alien-like creatures that call the surface currents their home within its folds.  Nowadays, this net is also frequently used to study ocean plastic.  We typically did neuston tows 4 times a day in the gyre, always towing at 2 anutical miles per hour for 30 minutes so all of your samples could be compared.

neuston

Manta Net: This is a neiston net with 2 fiberglass wings on the sides to stabilize it in rough weather.  Similarly to the neuston net, it collects samples from the surface only.

manta

MOCNESS (Multiple Opening and Closing Net with Environmental Sensing System)

This beast carries up to 9 nets on its heavy frame (we used 5).  These nets are programmed to openand close at different depths, allowing us to collect discrete samples not only at the surface, but at various depths as well! We towed the MOCNESS down to 10 meters (~30ft) and found plastic in every net!  Looking just at the surface does not give you a complete picture of how much plastic is out there!

DSCN0971

Stay tuned, next time I’ll write more about what we found :O)

All Aboard!!

Meet the Robert C Seamans:

Robbie C

On October 2, 2012, this ship became my home.  She stretches 134 feet stern to bow, and her sails tower 115 feet in the air.  She was our shelter, our life support, holding all the resources that would sustain us during our 36 day voyage from San Diego, California to Honolulu, Hawaii.

DSCN0729

Our holds were packed tight with provisions, hammocks bulging with fruit swinging on deck,  a reefer stacked tight with produce, and below decks a cavernous maze of cans.  This is no sailing yacht, oh no! This girl was built for scientific research!  Equipped with a wet and a dry lab, flow through water systems, and a hydrowinch capable of sending gear thousands of meters underwater, this ship collects scientific data 24/7.  It takes 38 people, working round the clock, to keep the ship sailing (or motoring), food cooking, and data collecting.

Group photo

When the June crew call was emailed out to SEA alumni, over 200 applicants vied for a mere 26 volunteer vacancies, alongside 12 professional scientists and sailors.  Those who were selected to join the shop ranged in age from 22 to 65.  The eldest sailor aboard, Pat Keoughan (65), qualified for medicare the day she boarded!  The first time she sailed with SEA was in 1980 as a student, and this time she returned as an outreach educator, answering daily questions sent from 10 schools K-12 across the country.   Among us were mothers, fathers, a hospitalist, a rocket scientist, educators, scientists, students, farmers, all of us wanderers, all of us thirsty for adventure, all of us willing to leave behind loved ones, internet, and land for 5 weeks to study plastic in the North Pacific Gyre.

Stay tuned to learn more about how we studied plastic at sea!

Week 19: Into the Gyre

Start out by closing your eyes and trying to imagine a world without plastic.

Having trouble? It’s hard! The stuff is everywhere! How would we brush our teeth, store our food or use the internet without plastic? Yet, plastics are relatively new to human culture. Talk to your grandparents and they can tell you about a world with milkmen, glass bottles and food wrapped in wax paper. The smorgasbord of cheap plastic goods we find around us today, from toys to bags and bottles, are the products of “throw away living”, the ideal of disposability that didn’t pop up until the 1950s. Now, Americans go through two million plastic soda bottles every five minutes! The amount of waste we create is staggering. So where does it all go?

Almost every piece of plastic we have ever made is still with us today. Most of it sits in landfills, some has been incinerated, and some, inevitably, ends up in the ocean. When it does it usually congregates in one of the five major gyres, or rotating ocean currents. As coastal and equatorial currents rotate around these gyres the middle, like the eye of a storm, remains calm. Once plastic gets there, it doesn’t leave.

5-gyres

80% of ocean plastic comes from land. Any walk through Boston will tell you that our waste disposal system is not perfect. Trash barrels overflow, bottles lay discarded on curbs, and plastic bags blow like tumbleweeds through the streets. The escapees and misfits from the waste stream of over 7 billion people can work its way into storm drains, beaches and rivers, which all lead to the sea. Other minor sources include offshore activities (military, fishing, drilling, etc.) and natural disasters (tsunamis, hurricanes, etc.). In addition, it was completely legal to dump plastic in the ocean until 1988!

Last fall, as a volunteer researcher on the Plastics at SEA expedition, I headed to the middle of the North Pacific Gyre to take a closer look at this mid-ocean plastic and its effects on marine life. For the next month or so I want to take you on a journey into the gyre, and tell you what it was like to see the Giant Pacific Garbage Patch first hand.logo plastics 2012

Week 17: April’s Total

April was a month of rainy days, chilly nights, and this persistent pile of plastic.

This week's total

This week’s total

This month's total

This month’s total

But plastic is not the only thing we saved this month.  Meet Titan!

IMG_5749No, that is not a small polar bear, it’s a Great Pyranees mystery mutt that we adopted from Big Fuzzy Dog Rescue.  So pardon the brevity of my post, I have a pup to snuggle :O)

polar bear?

polar bear?