Plastic garbage found in South Atlantic Ocean gyre

There are five major ocean-wide gyres — the No...
The five major ocean gyres, image via Wikipedia.

Research voyage shows vortex of plastic trash between South America and Africa

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Buoys, buckets, crates and even hard hats are circulating at the center of a gyre in the South Atlantic Ocean, proving that there’s not just one “Texas-size island of garbage” in the north Pacific, as is often published in the mainstream media.

Instead the problem is global, according to researchers with the nonprofit 5 Gyres Institute.

“We have confirmed our suspicion that plastic marine pollution is a global issue, and not confined to the Northern Hemisphere,” said Marcus Eriksen, Ph.D., co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute. The 5 Gyres crew, along with their collaborators at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, have previously discovered plastic pollution in the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Indian Ocean.

The scientists recently sailed 4,100 miles from Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town, South Africa, collecting 67 samples from the ocean’s surface.

“Every sample contained small fragments of plastic,” said Anna Cummins, 5 Gyres co-founder. And, as the crew neared the Southern Atlantic gyre, a vortex where the detritus accumulates, “we counted hundreds of large floating objects, including fishing buoys, nets, buckets, crates, water bottles and construction hard hats.”

“The garbage patches we discover are highly diffuse, perhaps a little more than a handful of plastic particles scattered over a football field,” Eriksen says. “But there are 315 million-square kilometers of ocean surface in the world, so there are billions of these football fields. Do the math, the product is staggering.  Practical solutions begin on land with improved recovery systems and better product stewardship where producers factor in the true environmental cost of their products.”

The 5 Gyres Institute, also collaborating with Pangaea Explorations, will hold a press conference in Cape Town on Dec. 10 to further discuss its findings. Once back in U.S., the samples will be analyzed to determine the amount of plastic on the sea surface by count and weight.

Crew member Chelsea Rochman, a UC Davis Ph.D student, will analyze more than 80 fish collected on the voyage for the presence of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) to investigate whether humans are being harmed by eating fish that have ingested plastic debris contaminated with these pollutants.

Eriksen and Cummins oversaw a 13-member crew of researchers, journalists and others including American pro surfers Mary Osborne and James Pribram.

“For the first week of the voyage, I really expected to see a plastic trash island the size of Texas,” Pribram said. “I finally realized that there is no such thing, and that the reality is much worse. It baffles me that media perpetuate such a pervasive myth about such an important issue.”

Eriksen and Cummins, residents of Santa Monica, Calif., will produce a baseline data set of plastic pollution in the Southern Hemisphere, and contribute to what is already known about the North Pacific and North Atlantic. In cooperation with AMRF, they will launch the Traveling Trawl Program, a citizen science program that encourages the public and sailors to use their equipment to collect samples from around the world.

In 2011, the 5 Gyres Institute will investigate plastic marine pollution in the South Pacific Gyre, another subtropical gyre unstudied to date.

5 Gyres is working closely with the United Nations Environmental Program’s Safe Planet campaign. Sponsors include Chaco USA, Quiksilver Foundation, and Ecousable.

About 5 Gyres Institute

5 Gyres Institute is a nonprofit organization committed to meaningful change through adventure, research and education. 5 Gyre disseminates its findings through national lecture tours and raises awareness about marine plastic pollution through sea expeditions including JUNKraft, a boat built in 2008 of 15,000 plastic bottles that sailed from California to Hawaii. 5 Gyres partners include the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and Pangaea Explorations, which provide a marine laboratory and research vessel, respectively. After studying the five subtropical gyres, 5 Gyres will monitor the 5 gyres through annual expeditions, and a Traveling Trawl Program, which loan research equipment to volunteer “citizen scientists.”  5 Gyres will share information with the public through a traveling exhibition on the issue, an international lecture series, and another plastic bottle raft to float across the North Atlantic in 2013.

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