‘Garbage Patch’ is the wrong place for old plas­tic

Sail­ing sci­en­tists who dis­cov­ered thou­sands of pieces of trash urge ev­ery­one to re­cy­cle

The Washington Post Sunday - - KIDS POST -

When that plas­tic water bot­tle that you brought to bas­ket­ball prac­tice was empty, you prob­a­bly re­cy­cled it. But lots of plas­tics don’t end up in the re­cy­cling bin. (Think deli con­tain­ers and straws.)

So where do they go? One place is the Pa­cific Ocean, in an area that has been called the Great Pa­cific Garbage Patch. A team of sci­en­tists re­cently sailed through the patch and found lots of plas­tic — not float­ing water bot­tles but thou­sands of pieces, most of them no big­ger than your fin­ger­nail, from plas­tic prod­ucts. Sci­en­tists are study­ing the prob­lem, but they say the so­lu­tion isn’t just up to them. It’s up to you, too.

Plas­tic ex­plo­sion

Plas­tics have be­come a big part of our lives in a short time. Your grand­par­ents didn’t have re­seal­able plas­tic sand­wich bags in ele­men­tary school. Plas­tic soda bot­tles weren’t in­vented un­til the 1970s. Once th­ese and other plas­tic con­tain­ers be­came pop­u­lar, they be­gan fill­ing land­fills, or huge garbage dumps.

Many com­mu­ni­ties started re­cy­cling pro­grams so the land­fills wouldn’t be­come full so quickly. But lots of plas­tics don’t make it into the bins. The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, the part of the government that stud­ies re­cy­cling, re­ported that only 8 per­cent of plas­tic waste was re­cy­cled in 2010.

The rest doesn’t all go to land­fills. A plas­tic bag can blow out of a trash can and into a creek, then float down to a river, then into the ocean. Twenty years ago, peo­ple started notic­ing that plas­tics were col­lect­ing in the North Pa­cific Gyre (pro­nounced “jire” — it rhymes with “tire”), a sys­tem of cur­rents that swirl in a cir­cle that stretches from Cal­i­for­nia to Ja­pan. News­pa­pers and mag­a­zines pub­lished pho­tos of float­ing trash and nick­named the area the Great Pa­cific Garbage Patch.

The Sea Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion (SEA), which has been study­ing oceans for 25 years, or­ga­nized a trip last fall to study the plas­tics found on the Pa­cific Ocean sur­face and just be­low.

What does it look like?

“If you’re look­ing for the plas­tics [from the deck of a boat] . . . chances are you may not even see it,” said Emelia De­Force, chief sci­en­tist on the ex­pe­di­tion. “Al­most never will you find water bot­tles. That type of plas­tic ac­tu­ally sinks.”

But De­Force and 37 other sci­en­tists and crew mem­bers on the 134-foot SSV Robert C. Sea­mans found plenty of plas­tic. They col­lected some of it with finemesh nets, then counted the pieces us­ing tweez­ers.

“The ma­jor­ity is be­tween one and 10 mil­lime­ters,” said De­Force, 33.

She talked by phone with KidsPost af­ter re­turn­ing home to Woods Hole, Mas­sachusetts. “Over time, wind, rain and [ul­tra­vi­o­let] rays will break the plas­tics down.”

Be­tween San Diego, Cal­i­for­nia, and Honolulu, Hawaii, the crew found 69,566 pieces of plas­tic.

On one un­usu­ally calm day dur­ing the 36-day ex­pe­di­tion, the crew hit the plas­tics jack­pot. “You could see lit­tle mini veins of plas­tic just go­ing through the ocean,” De­Force said. The crew dropped a net and towed it for a mile. “We got 23,000 pieces of plas­tic,” she said. “That was the ex­treme.”

Other times, they would col­lect

just a few pieces of plas­tic.

Wind and ocean cur­rents had a large ef­fect on the num­ber of plas­tic pieces that the crew found.

Along for the ride

When crew mem­bers pulled up the nets, they also found marine life — tiny crabs and goose­neck bar­na­cles — at­tached to the plas­tic. Hilary Hoagland-Grey of Ar­ling­ton, who stud­ied marine sci­ence with SEA while in col­lege in the 1980s, said she was es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in “the whole idea of lit­tle mi­cro­cosms trav­el­ing across the ocean [on plas­tic].”

One of the crew’s un­usual finds — a re­frig­er­a­tor — had lots of tiny crea­tures in­side it, Hoagland-Grey said. But even small pieces of plas­tic had plank­ton at­tached.

SEA plans to study whether the plas­tics are af­fect­ing the tiny liv­ing crea­tures the crew col­lected, De­Force said.

But sea life is a main rea­son why scoop­ing up all the plas­tic isn’t pos­si­ble, she said.

“When peo­ple start to ask ques­tions about what can we do about this . . . when you try to clean up the plas­tics, you’re clean­ing up the reg­u­lar marine life that’s there.”

What to do?

SEA aims to spread the word about its ex­pe­di­tion in the hope that peo­ple will keep more trash from reach­ing the oceans.

“Plas­tic is very im­por­tant to us as hu­mans. . . . We need plas­tics in our lives,” De­Force said. But she and Hoagland-Grey said we also need to be more aware of how we use plas­tics.

“I would ask kids to look around them and ask how many plas­tic things did they use to­day and not put in the re­cy­cling bin,” said Hoagland-Grey, not­ing that most cities and coun­ties don’t re­cy­cle all plas­tics.

So next time some­one of­fers you a straw for your choco­late milk, try say­ing, “No, thanks.”

You might keep one more piece of plas­tic out of the land­fills and out of the oceans.

Christina Bar­ron

Idea: Keep a plas­tics jour­nal

Keep track of ev­ery piece of plas­tic you use in one day. At the end of the day, try to fig­ure out if you can re­duce your use of plas­tics. Have your par­ent or guardian send your ideas to

or KidsPost, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Each submission should in­clude your name, age and home town as well as the name and phone num­ber of the adult sub­mit­ting your sug­ges­tions. A note from the adult giv­ing per­mis­sion for KidsPost to pub­lish the sug­ges­tions is also re­quired. KidsPost will print se­lected sub­mis­sions in a fu­ture is­sue.


The SSV Robert C. Sea­mans, right, re­cently car­ried sci­en­tists through a por­tion of the Pa­cific Ocean to col­lect sam­ples of plas­tic float­ing on the sur­face and just be­neath. Above, most of the pieces that they picked up were no big­ger than your fin­ger­nail.

Matt Eck­lund in­ter­views and pho­to­graphs Emelia De­Force, who was the chief sci­en­tist on the ex­pe­di­tion.

An un­der­wa­ter view shows a net that was used to col­lect de­bris. Marine crea­tures were at­tached to some of the items.

— kidspost@wash­post.com

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