During the past half-century, a growing portion of what humans eat, drink or use has come in plastic packaging – petroleum-based containers that are sturdy and long-lasting, yet are used only briefly and then thrown away. Daily, billions of plastic bags and bottles are disacrded, and much of this trash ends up littering the environment or, increasingly, being washed out to sea. Many scientists have documented the growing volume of plastic garbage floating in the oceans. Now a young couple is taking a fresh look at the problem to see if something can be done to solve it.
Marcus Eriksen is on a global expedition to document and publicize the growing accumulation of plastic trash in the oceans, and to study its effects on marine and human life.
“These are the five sub-tropical gyres in the world where the majority of the plastic in the world accumulates,” he said.
“The gyre is formed by ocean currents that couple with the spinning of the earth’s rotation. And what happens is that you have, effectively, a massive whirlpool, a large spinning system, where debris can accumulate,” said Anna Cummins, who along with her husband, Eriksen, is a co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, a California-based non-profit organization that promotes research into plastic pollution in the oceans.
Ms. Cummins says that in less than 100 years, humans have replaced most of the re-usable products and natural materials with plastics that are used just briefly. At the end of their short use cycle, plastic bags or bottles have little value. The majority end up in solid-waste landfills or as litter in creeks and rivers. A lot of this waste also washes out to sea, where it enters swirling ocean currents and over time, travels thousands of kilometers.
“This becomes a problem in the marine environment because plastics are designed to last forever,” Ms. Cummins said. “They don’t break down, they can’t be digested by marine organisms and they persist in the ocean for thousands of years.”
In their journeys across the world’s oceans, Eriksen and Ms. Cummins have been trawling the top 20 centimeters of the water’s surface with a fine mesh net. Hundreds of samples of the debris they’ve collected are now being analyzed in a California lab.
“What shocked me the most on all these trips is to cross an ocean for thousands and thousands of miles and find that every single sample we pull up has plastics,” Ms. Cummins said.
Some plastics in the ocean stay in large pieces for a long time. But many break into smaller particles.
“Roughly 43 percent of all marine mammals, 86 percent of all sea turtle and 44 percent of sea bird species are found with plastics in or around their bodies,” Cummins said “35 percent of the samples of fish that we collected in the north Pacific had plastic in their stomachs.”
5-Gyres Institute and its research partners are now documenting the way plastics are entering the ocean food chain and studying their possible impact on human health.