Let’s talk about the Ocean…of Plastics, clean-up efforts, & how to help

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By now, you may be used to reading humorous stories for our #iamaMariner blog series, but this time, we wanted to talk about something a little more serious, and quite important. Why is this topic important to us as a maritime museum, you ask? Well, we are all connected to the water, and the state of our waterways plays a critical role in how we interact with this amazing and powerful resource. So, let’s get a little serious for now, and we’ll get back to the funny stories next time.

Fact vs. Myth

By now you’ve probably heard about the plastic island in the Pacific. Between the current push to recycle, sea turtles being classified as endangered, and most recently the fight against plastic straws, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been in all sorts of news and media. Not ringing a bell? Check out more about it here.

Poster (by Stamatis Kardaris)

But let’s get a few things straight…

  • It’s not really an island. There is no way to stand on a massive pile of plastic bottles and grocery bags. It’s better to think of it as a debris field – averaging more than 200,000 objects per square kilometer – with varying sized pieces of garbage, namely plastic, floating throughout the water column. In fact, many pieces are microscopic.
  • Yes, it is bigger than Texas, but you can’t see it in satellite imagery, or from space, and because the mass is debris, there isn’t a definite area, or a good way to track the patches size. Instead, the garbage is constantly moving and shifting.
Size estimation for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (The Ocean Cleanup)
  • It’s not the only conglomeration of plastics in our waterways. In fact, there are two garbage patches in the Pacific, two in the Atlantic, one in the Indian Ocean, and research is being conducted in the Great Lakes on the subject as well. Weather patterns play a huge role in determining where garbage congregates at sea, and the conditions in these areas seem to pick up and swirl around a lot of our misplaced trash. We hear more about the problem in the Pacific because that’s where the most research is concentrated.
Map depicting Pacific Garbage Zones (NOAA Marine Debris Program)
  • It really is *that* bad. Remember that the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” – the one between California and Hawaii – has over 200,000 pieces of trash per square kilometer! And the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone – the area between the Eastern and Western Pacific Garbage Patches, just above Hawaii – throws an estimated 52 tons of derelict fishing nets on the northern Hawaiian coral reefs yearly. Let that sink in… That is only one type of trash… in one area… and it weighs as much as 12 killer whales, 50 narwhals, or 2 humpback whales!
Estimation of water-borne plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (The Ocean Cleanup)

Impacts

Since the biggest trash nemesis is plastic(s) and there are such a wide variety, maybe I should clarify. Merriam Webster defines the word as “a plastic substance”. That doesn’t seem very helpful. The dictionary does clarify that informally, “plastic” means “credit card”. Thanks…

The Oxford Dictionary does a better job, “Plastic: a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers such as polyethylene, PVC, nylon, etc., that can be moulded into shape while soft, and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form”.

Better yet, here is a list of plastic products you may, or may not, have considered: shopping and garbage bags, disposable diapers, styrofoam and solo cups, face wash microbeads, rope, soda bottles, carpeting, PVC, bottle caps, packing peanuts, take-away containers, CD’s, luggage, bubble wrap, toys, cellophane wrap, clothing, candy wrappers. Phew, need I go on?

Yeah, there is a lot of it. And plastics are so invasive in our world that it is pretty hard to avoid them completely. Recycling makes a big difference, but it is nearly inevitable that something will end up in the water on accident. So, what exactly does that do to the environment?

The biggest known problem is plastics’ effect on marine habitats and wildlife. Fish and other sea-life get entangled in debris causing injury, suffocation, and death. Net-type garbage and derelict traps accidentally “ghost fish”, or catch and kill fish, in turn attracting scavengers who also get trapped and die, and continue the accidental trap cycle. Wildlife can ingest plastics that resemble prey, or that are too small to see, causing internal blockages, injuries, and malnutrition. Big heavy pieces scour and smother coral reefs and other habitats. Even smaller pieces can attach to and break corals. Floating trash can also transport marine species and larvae to new places, which promotes the spread of invasive species.

Photographs of derelict fishing nets found in Hawaii (NOAA)

Lesser mentioned problems include the cost on tourism industries who have to spend millions of dollars cleaning up beaches for their industry’s survival and the inevitable damage to individual vessels.

And that isn’t the end of it. Who knows what chemicals the breakdown of plastics is throwing in our waters. The impact is vast, and in some ways incomprehensible.  

The Ocean Cleanup

But there is a good news story here, too. Tons of groups are working to better understand our plastics problem and to clean up the oceans; all of them are truly incredible #mariners.

One of the biggest efforts is just getting started, though. Last month The Ocean Clean-Up launched System 001 – a 600-meter long float that has a 3-meter deep “skirt” – meant to capture all the trash at the water’s surface for extraction. The system launched for testing from San Francisco, CA. And, just last week, the team got the green light to begin cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch! Follow their journey here.

System 001 testing check list (The Ocean Cleanup)

The group estimates that with a fleet of 60 systems, they could reduce trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by approximately 50% in just 5 years! And, they think that deployment of these systems worldwide could reduce 90% of the plastic pollution in the oceans by 2040!

Explanation of System 001’s movement (The Ocean Cleanup_

Other environmental scientists have doubts about the system’s effectiveness – saying that wildlife will be negatively impacted and noting that plastics are present at every level of the water column, not just the top 3-meters. The Ocean Clean-Up crew acknowledged these concerns and spent two weeks of last month running tests and analyzing potential effects. Find their methodology, safeguards, and estimated impacts here.

Sure, it’s not a perfect system, but it is definitely a big start!

At our Doorstep

It is important to remember this is not just a Pacific problem, though. Right here, in the Chesapeake Bay, there are an estimated 145,000 derelict crab pots alone! The Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program put together a marine debris reduction plan that includes finding funding, changing individual behaviors, education outreach, creating state and local regulations, and collaborating with local prevention and removal groups. That’s a fancy way of saying there is a plan… You should get involved!

Poster (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Really connect with the #iamaMariner spirit by joining a local clean-up. Opportunities include:

  • Clean the Bay Day – first Saturday of June, annually
  • International Coastal Cleanup Day – September, annually
  • askHRgreen.org – advertises clean-up, education days, and festivals in the Hampton Roads Area
  • Volunteer Hampton Roads – a non-profit agency mobilizing volunteers in our area
  • Marine Debris Tracker – a NOAA phone app to track where, when, and what you collect on your clean-up

These options just scratch the surface of ways to be involved, but remember, every little action makes a difference!

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