The oceans are being poisoned with a toxic ‘plastic smog’, reaching into every corner of the marine environment, and comprising an estimated 5.25 trillion individual pieces.
So says Dr Marcus Eriksen, research director and co-founder of the 5 Gyres, the organisation he started with his wife Anna Cummins in 2008. Between them, and helped by a small team based in Santa Monica, California, the couple have done more than perhaps anyone else to bring the problem of plastic pollution to the surface of the public consciousness.
The estimate of 5.25 trillion plastic particles was first published in a paper co-written by Marcus in December last year. Using data collected over years of sailing the oceans by himself and six other scientists, he and his colleagues created a huge dataset that allowed modelling to determine the numbers of particles likely in each region. He describes the mammoth task as ‘a labour of love for the ocean’.
In 2013, Marcus and colleagues also published the results of a study showing large numbers of tiny, spherical microplastic particles in the Great Lakes. Finding more of the ‘beads’ closer to big cities, and at the convergence of major currents, the team concluded that the particles were the tiny balls of plastic used in toiletries like toothpaste, soap and face wash.
5 Gyres is behind the Ban the Bead campaign, which has successfully campaigned with others for microbeads to be banned from such products. California recently became the ninth, and largest US state to ban the tiny, exfoliating plastic spheres, paving the way for a nationwide embargo.
But the Institute is no ordinary environmental lobbying group. While it is built on solid foundations of scientific research, it is the spirit of adventure, and an eagerness to engage with those outside the scientific community that sets it apart.
Marcus’ approach, and that of 5 Gyres, is exemplified by his own journeys. Shortly after receiving his PhD in 2003, he set off on a 2,000 mile voyage down the Mississippi on a homemade raft. In another of his many adventures, in 2008 he and a friend sailed ‘Junk’, a raft made of plastic rubbish and the fuselage of a Cessna aircraft, from California to Hawaii.
Nowadays, 5 Gyres organises research expeditions to explore the vast agglomerations of mostly plastic debris in the oceans’ great subtropical gyres: massive, slowly spinning currents that cause marine rubbish to collect. These voyages allow Marcus and his colleagues to collect a huge amount of data on marine plastic pollution through sampling the sea surface and water column, as well as analysing the marine plastic they collect.
Early ways of characterising the problem include the infamous ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, which conjures up an image of vast islands of bottles bobbing on a sunlit sea. More current today, in recognition of the large proportion of microplastics, is the image of a ‘plastic soup’.
But, Marcus argues, neither truly encapsulates the nature and extent of what we face: the reality is a plastic smog, made up of trillions of mostly microplastic particles, and spread throughout the oceans, though with concentrations at the gyres.
In an article for the Explorer’s Journal, Marcus wrote: "We have found that what once were described as ‘garbage patches’ collectively form a ‘smog of microplastics’, loaded with toxins, which pervades the entire marine ecosystem, in varied concentrations, from the Arctic to the Antarctic."
While much plastic pollution enters the ocean in large pieces, Marcus argues that it is rapidly pulverised by constant motion, the effects of UV sunlight, and the attentions of curious marine life. The resulting microplastic fragments absorb harmful chemicals from seawater, which leach out into the bodies of creatures that ingest them, entering the food chain that ends with humans, and poisoning the entire marine ecosystem.
The December 2014 paper also noted that much of the expected microplastic seemed to be absent from the sea surface. The suggestion is that a huge quantity of plastic waste has already sunk below the surface, on its journey to the deep.
Marcus again: "We are now finding microplastics in ice cores, on remote shores, and on the ocean floor. After three weeks of sailing north along the Greenland coast to Iceland, where we battled a few frigid storms, we were able to transect the subpolar gyre and found microplastics in nearly all of our samples. Though diminishing in concentration toward the Arctic Circle, we were expecting, hoping to find nothing. ‘It was abundantly clear that where there’s seawater, there’s plastic."
Having established a fair estimate of the extent of the problem, and come up with what he believes is an accurate description of it, Marcus is looking at how to engage manufacturers and legislators to find a solution. He explains: "Industry tends to promote better recycling, beach cleanups, and energy recovery with incinerators - deflecting these costs to taxpayers - rather than ceasing production of environmentally destructive products in the first place.
"The other side promotes better municipal waste sorting and composting, and producer responsibility for the redesign or phase out of the most common and costly waste products.
"The problem is that millions of poorly designed products are slipping past current waste management systems. A design overhaul for thousands of products is essential. We must embark on an ‘age of restoration’, committing ourselves to building a future in which ecosystem services trump all other
If we can bring ourselves to do so, we just might ensure the health of our planet into the future."
Cover image: The plastic smog in the world’s oceans. Credit: Laurent Lebreton