“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist
Recently I had the opportunity to join the 5 Gyres Institute on their 2015 I S.E.A. Change Expedition to the North Atlantic Sub-tropical gyre. The purpose of this mission is part of a larger, ongoing effort to assess the overall global abundance of floating surface microplastics debris. The collection of this debris has been termed “plastic smog” by 5 Gyres founders Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, and its impact through toxicant sorption into the food chain and physical disruption of marine structure is not currently well understood. Through a combination of sea surface trawling and team-based spotting, the 5 Gyres crew is able to develop large N datasets that aid in quantitation and estimation for the true scope of the problem. This work has directly led to the first ever state microbead legislation, caused 16 major cosmetic companies to remove microbeads from their products, and is the basis for a co-sponsored national bill being debated right now!
The world’s oceans contain 5 major sub-tropical gyres, comprised of the North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. The North Pacific is the most famous, having been dubbed the “floating garbage island” with size estimates ranging from Texas to continental United States equivalents. This is a misnomer, as the vast majority of the pollution is comprised of microplastics, plastic debris that falls within 4 size categories: small microplastic (0.33-1.00 mm), large microplastic (1.01-4.75 mm), mesoplastic (4.76-200 mm), and macroplastic (>200 mm). Based on the findings of Eriksen, Cummins, and many other field researchers, models suggest that 250,000 tons – some 5.25 TRILLION pieces - of microplastic are currently afloat in our oceans.
More compounding is the implications this has on our food chain. Across all of the sub-tropical gyres, Eriksen and Cummins have documented that large microplastics account for an average count of 58% (10.6% mass) of the debris documented. These large microplastic pieces have been demonstrated to act as chemical sponges, adsorbing chemicals from the ocean that result in concentrations of up to 1 million times more than the water around them. As fate would have it, they share a size class with mesozooplankton, one of the cornerstones of the maritime food chain. In some parts of the world, such as the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic, large microplastic exist in 40-fold higher concentration than the plankton. Local feeding fish are unable to tell the difference between the two; they eat the plastic, bigger fish eat the feeding fish, and humans eat the big fish. As we pollute our oceans, we are quite literally poisoning ourselves.
Unique to this problem is that it is singularly human-caused – there can be no debate or off-set for naturally occurring phenomena. The creation of single-use disposable goods from a super-durable material is counterintuitive. This is the demonstrably short sighted result of poor product design, poor waste management systems, and a lack of human accountability. We are only 50 years into our experimentation with plastic as a resource, and its potential negative effects are now irrefutable. Despite this, when used responsibly, plastic empowers humankind with better medicine, efficiency in materials and goods transportation, and even the ability to travel into space. Therefore we cannot define ourselves as anti-plastic, but must take the stance of anti-pollution. We must end our dependence on single-use disposable plastics and do better to utilize the positive aspects of this reusable, durable material.