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Good science, bad news:

Despite growing awareness of the problem of plastic pollution in the world's oceans, little solid scientific information existed to illustrate the nature and scope of the issue. Now, a team of researchers from Sea Education Association (SEA), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and the University of Hawaii (UH) published a study of plastic marine debris based on data collected over 22 years by undergraduate students in the latest issue of the journal Science.

A previously undefined expanse of the western North Atlantic has been found to contain high concentrations of plastic debris, comparable to those observed in the region of the Pacific commonly referred to as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch."

The greatest concentration of the more than 64,000 pieces of collected plastic was centered at a latitude roughly corresponding to Atlanta, Georgia.

Said SEA scientist Kara Lavender Law, the Science paper's lead author, "Not only does this important data set provide the first rigorous scientific estimate of the extent and amount of floating plastic at an ocean-basin scale, but the data also confirm that basic ocean physics explains why the plastic accumulates in this region so far from shore."

Surprisingly, despite a great increase in the disposal of plastics over the 22 years of the study, the concentration has not increased.

The whereabouts of the "missing plastic" is unknown.

This is disturbing on many levels, and the report itself offers some seemingly possible explanations, although measurably improved efforts at preventing or recapturing spilled industrial resin pellets is not considered likely, as such residue constitutes but a small fraction of the overall material; and dispersal through anomalous currents and eddies is not considered capable of having offset the fourfold increase in input over the course of the study.

Possible sinks for floating plastic debris include: fragmentation, sedimentation, shore deposition, and ingestion by marine organisms.

It's unlikely that enough plastics could have broken down that much over the study's timeframe, and there's no evidence suggesting much of it sinks.

Because the cohort of pelagic organisms that ingest plastic, their ingestion rates, and the fate of ingested plastics are unknown, it is impossible to estimate the size of this sink.

In other words, we just don't know. The remaining accumulation is massive, but even more is missing, and there are no good explanations. Not that any truly plausible explanations could be defined as "good," anyway.

Further, the model indicates that the minimum time for surface tracer (i.e. drifter or plastic) to reach the collection center from the U.S. eastern seaboard is less than 60 days, at least half the time required to travel from Europe or Africa. The influence of the Gulf Stream is particularly evident in some of the fastest propagation times – 40 days from Washington, DC and Miami, FL, for example – in which tracer traveled along the coast before entering the gyre interior. While not indicative of the size or location of landbased sources, or of the age of debris, these estimates demonstrate how quickly plastic entering the ocean near major U.S. population centers could impact an area more than 1000 km offshore.

Just another contribution of our fossil fuel economy to the world's ecosystems.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 07:00 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  To be discussing possible sinks (13+ / 0-)

    for discarded plastic is really really depressing.

  •  There is room for hope, though (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Laurence Lewis, jwinIL14

    "Ridicule may lawfully be employed where reason has no hope of success." -7.75/-6.05

    by QuestionAuthority on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 07:06:22 AM PDT

  •  Plastics are mostly petroleum based, right? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Marc in KS, Joffan

    It may be that the same microbes that "eat" raw petroleum in the ocean have evolved to the point where they break down plastics as well. Or, at least some of them.

  •  The Polymer Triangle? n/t (6+ / 0-)

    "...calling for a 5" deck gun is not parody. Not by a long shot." (gnaborretni)

    by annieli on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 07:07:53 AM PDT

    •  Hmmmmmmm........... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      "The whereabouts of the "missing plastic" is unknown." Lots of missing plastic, eh?  "In other words, we just don't know."  Don't know, eh? Well, we're just gonna hafta call it........Dark Plastic!!!

      Now we just hafta figure out what the heck to DO ABOUT IT!!!  A bit tougher.........

      Well, it sure is a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff....
      Yep, and if it ain’t it’ll do ‘til the mess gets here.

  •  there is the first one seen in the Pacific (5+ / 0-)

    i recently heard the captain of the boat
    he has dedicated his life in the past 12 years to educate about our waste stream
    the plastic take in pollutants and looks like plankton
    it was developed NOT to go away
    and it has some valuable applications
    boxing toys from china or bringing home the groceries is not one of them

  •  Plastic could be our legacy (6+ / 0-)

    After we manage to wipe ourselves out it will be here for eons as a testament to aliens or whatever intelligent life evolves next that we where here.

    Bush didn't just drive the country into the ditch. He stole the mirrors, slashed the tires, lit it on fire, then drove it into the ditch.

    by ontheleftcoast on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 07:09:58 AM PDT

  •  asdf (5+ / 0-)

    Jesus, the other day I saw what must have been 2-3 large garbage sacks worth of plastic just dumped on the side of a highway onramp. It was as though someone had gathered it all up just to discard it on the side of the road. My wife and I both dropped our jaws. If I'd have had somewhere to put it in my car, I'd have stopped and gathered it up to take it by the recycling center.

  •  Can't read it without a subscription... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dinotrac per many scientific journals, but if the diarist has indeed read the actual paper, could he elaborate on why natural decay isn't considered a plausible explanation?

    Most plastics degrade from UV radiation, and floating on the ocean in the middle of nowhere is about as good a place for UV exposure as you're going to get.

  •  Anyone got pics of that Pacific Garbage Patch? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Laurence Lewis, jwinIL14

    Whenever I see it mentioned, I always ask for nice aerial pics, showing the size of it. I never seem to get them. What gives with that?

    Close-ups showing an individual bottle or whatever aren't what I'm after - I'm looking for pics that show the whole thing, in the ocean, clearly conveying the ginormous size of the patch.

    I'm gonna go eat a steak. And fuck my wife. And pray to GOD - hatemailapalooza, 052210

    by punditician on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 07:13:19 AM PDT

  •  Canadian teen breeds Microbe that eats plastic (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Laurence Lewis, JeffW
  •  Monterey Bay Aquarium does a great trip (5+ / 0-)

    out in the bay on a sailing ship that also does garbage pick-up with their education tours.

    The crew was telling us how they got the city of Monterey to ban styrofoam.

    They picked up garbage out of the bay and tagged each collection with a GPS marker.  The map they created showed a clear correlation to Fisherman's Wharf, where the restaurants hand out samples of chowder.  In styrofoam bowls.  Their work helped lead to the ban.

    In another incident, they were conducting beach clean ups and found bags of cigarette butts.  They took those to the local city council and smoking on the beach was then banned.

    I like how they tackled the issue from a single type of garbage.  Our time in Texas was disheartening because their beaches are covered with so many types of garbage, it was hard to figure out where to start.  But the above examples gave me some ideas and if I ever live at a beach where the garbage is bad, I'll do a single type of garbage collection and start working from there.

    •  I bought some fish tacos by the bay in Victoria (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      JeffW, angelajean, ontheleftcoast

      in British Columbia.  Everything was paper and the disposable spork was a light wood like balsa!  The little to-go food stand had giant barrels, one for compostables (food + paper + wood) and one for recyclables (glass, aluminum, and plastic beverage bottles).  No actual garbage.

      "The extinction of the human race will come from its inability to EMOTIONALLY comprehend the exponential function." -- Edward Teller

      by lgmcp on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 07:24:36 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Where I work the cafeteria has gone (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        lgmcp, JeffW, geez53, angelajean

        all compostable for the plates, utensils. Initially the utensils were horrible. They were made from potato starch and would dissolve while you used them. The newer ones work much better.

        Bush didn't just drive the country into the ditch. He stole the mirrors, slashed the tires, lit it on fire, then drove it into the ditch.

        by ontheleftcoast on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 07:28:18 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  And another thing about plastics -- (6+ / 0-)

    they're not so great for our total body burden of toxics.  They have icky stuff that bioaccumulates.  

    Up to 60% of American women have uterine fibroids -- non-malignant tumors that cause problems by massively distorting the size of the womb.  These growths are highly estrogen-dependent.  Nobody's really talking about why they exist, but my money's on xenoestrogens.  Most famous for causing hermphrodism in aquatic life, but I doubt they're so great for us either, y'know?

    Here's a partial list of compounds which mimic estrogen by binding to its receptors:

    alkylphenols (intermediate chemicals used in the manufacture of other chemicals)
    atrazine (weedkiller)
    4-Methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC) (sunscreen lotions)
    butylated hydroxyanisole / BHA (food preservative)
    bisphenol A (monomer for polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resin; antioxidant in plasticizers)
    dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (one of the breakdown products of DDT)
    dieldrin (insecticide)
    DDT (insecticide)
    endosulfan (insecticide)
    erythrosine / FD&C Red No. 3
    ethinylestradiol (combined oral contraceptive pill) (released into the environment as a xenoestrogen)
    heptachlor (insecticide)
    lindane / hexachlorocyclohexane (insecticide)
    metalloestrogens (a class of inorganic xenoestrogens)
    methoxychlor (insecticide)
    nonylphenol and derivatives (industrial surfactants; emulsifiers for emulsion polymerization; laboratory detergents; pesticides)
    pentachlorophenol (general biocide and wood preservative)
    polychlorinated biphenyls / PCBs (in electrical oils, lubricants, adhesives, paints)
    parabens (lotions)
    phenosulfothiazine (a red dye)
    phthalates (plasticizers)
    DEHP (plasticizer for PVC)
    Propyl gallate (used to protect oils and fats in products from oxidation)

    "The extinction of the human race will come from its inability to EMOTIONALLY comprehend the exponential function." -- Edward Teller

    by lgmcp on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 07:20:11 AM PDT

  •  On the bright side....... (3+ / 0-)

    By 5010 there will be a new species of cod that excretes its own shrink wrap. Thereby cutting down the odor associated with future massive* fish kills.

    *by 5010 massive will mean 2 dead fish. 1 quarter of known population.

    Welcome to the Corporate States of America ®, give us your money, then die quietly.

    by geez53 on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 07:22:47 AM PDT

  •  C-107, 1989 (6+ / 0-)

    Hi folks,

    In the summer of 1989, I was a young biology student and I enrolled in SEA program.  It was one of the high points of my life.  I spent 6 weeks in Woods Hole learning about Oceanography and 6 weeks aboard the SV-Corwith Cramer sailing from Woods Hole to Bay D'Espoir in Newfoundland to Lunenburg to Bar Harbor and back through the Cape Cod Canal to Woods Hole.  

    At that time we followed the gulf current and saw large mats of Sargassum, brown algae that breaks loose during storms in the Caribbean.  We also saw lots of plastic bags floating in the current.

    When we stopped at Sable Island, a long sandy spit hundreds of miles  east of Lunenberg, I was amazed at the numbers of plastic bottles that had washed up on the beach.  I even found one with a note in it but the ink had washed away.  Note to bottle writers, use India Ink or Pencil.

    At that time, we wondered how long it would be before the plastics would form large mats like the Sargassum.  To a reader, 21 years seems like a long time a single person, but those years went very quickly for me.  

    When I hear people dismiss environmental concerns with the idea that the earth is vast and we are small, I am amazed at either the lack of their observatory and or synthesis abilities.  It is all around us.


  •  Send out ships that can pick up plastic (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    They could use specially designed nets that remove plastic from the water.  It could take awhile, but the only thing to do is remove the plastics.

    Democracy. Let's give it a try.

    by RockyLabor on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 07:47:43 AM PDT

    •  were it only that easy. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Laurence Lewis, RockyLabor

      the particles are anywhere from the size of phytoplankton -- smaller than fine sand -- to fist-sized and beyond. If it was all just coke bottles and bags, it'd be easy.

      Yes, action will have to be taken at some point, if we're to have an ocean we recognize -- but probably a large-particle sweep first, then smaller, and then smaller.

      Fantastically expensive, with our 2020 selves cursing our 2010 selves.

      Humoring the horror of environmental collapse:
      4600+ news items and quips.

      by mwmwm on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 08:31:57 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It will take some research (0+ / 0-)

        They can make screens that have extremely small mesh sizes.  Perhaps, if the particles are small enough, they might photo-degrade or biologically degrade.  But there is a P.R. benefit, too.  When people see these barges coming into port hauling mountains of plastic garbage, it might create more environmental awareness.

        Democracy. Let's give it a try.

        by RockyLabor on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 09:00:14 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Eventually... (0+ / 0-)

          They'll have little boats running on solar power, operated by (sorta) intelligent computers gathering small bits of plastic into larger bunches.

          Then much bigger boats can go to that "collection area" to pick up the bunches.

          'S funny.  The plastic is full of nasty chemicals but it also absorbs other nasties.  Is there a known "shortage" of things like DDT that has disappeared?

          Maybe it's the DDT that keeps the bacteria healthy while they eat the plastic.

  •  Project Kaisei folks (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Laurence Lewis

    here is their facebook page:


    Global Collaborative Solution to the Plastic Vortex

    Please spread the word and help support our 2010 Expedition which will allow us to scale up some of the catch methods we tested last summer, continue our research, and also bring back large volumes of debris for remediation/processing on land.

    We are based mainly in Hong Kong (Doug) and San Francisco (Mary), among others. This is a global issue.....don't be afraid to join just because you might be land-locked. We all use plastics!!! And need to change some of these patterns of use.

    Project Kaisei is dependent on funding from individuals and foundations to accomplish our important mission and we would very much appreciate your support and efforts in spreading the word.

    Project Kaisei also has a facebook group, accessible from the following address:

    The cause will mirror the same information an updates as this group, however it also has the facility to make direct donations to assist with fund raising.

    It is the direct result of support from people like you, and the dedicated time and efforts of all our team members and supporters that Project Kaisei's initial expedition to the North Pacific Gyre was completed with such great success!

    We have now turned our attention to rigorous shore-based scientific lab work, testing the numerous samples we collected, and continuing our growing awareness & education programs. The prototype collection technologies we tested this year are being improved upon and we are aiming to produce numerous full scale models to be deployed next year - beginning cleanup efforts in earnest.

    Project Kaisei and marine debris was recently the focus of the California Environmental Protection Agency DTSC Pollution Prevention Week event in addition to key participation in important events such as the Always On/Going Green conference in San Francisco area just to name a few.

    We have been very honored by the overwhelming international response to our efforts.

    Project Kaisei's team members were recently on hand in the Netherlands to receive the "2009 VAOP Climate Award" given to Project Kaisei "In recognition of our contribution to a waste free environment". We were also just named a "Google Earth Hero" for our efforts related to Marine Debris.

    While we are indeed proud and honored to receive these accolades, our commitment to the discovery, development and deployment of marine debris solutions — initiating large scale clean-up while working with industry and policy makers to introduce "benign by design" products, motivating the change of consumer and industrial practices to prevent further accumulation, all remain our primary focus and passion.

    Towards this end, Project Kaisei is excited to announce we have set the dates for the 2010 mission.

    In May we plan to depart from San Francisco on three 30day voyages that will take us through the gyre to Hawaii, the north western gyre and back to San Francisco with a fleet of vessels including the SV KAISEI, 2 converted fishing vessels to assist with cleanup operations and a specially designed barge to transport large quantities of debris we collect.

    We will continue the important scientific work, looking at the actual degree and impact of all these materials on the ocean environment, sea and animal life and collaboratively working on sustainable methods of converting debris into fuel or other derivative goods/products.

    Achieving our goals will take even more time and effort from our team and of course funding. We appreciate your support and ask for your assistance to continue our work.

    Please keep spreading the word about Project Kaisei and the situation in the North Pacific Gyre and our world’s ocean. You can assist by directing your friends, family and colleagues to our website. Project Kaisei is dependent on funding from individuals, organizations and foundations and anything you can give will be greatly appreciated. Many companies offer partial or matching donations, so be sure to check with your place of employment to see if this option is available.

    Project Kaisei is a mission of Ocean Voyages Institute, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and federally recognized US public charity and therefore donations are considered a US tax right off.

    We also are working on many exciting projects, including education and awareness campaigns and local grassroots development. If you want to take an active role in Project Kaisei and be part of the solution, please contact us as and let us know how you would like to contribute.

    We very much appreciate your continued support and efforts in spreading the word and thank you for helping us reverse the tide of debris into our ocean!

    The Project Kaisei Team

  •  Maybe folks will pay attention (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Laurence Lewis

    when a hurricane washes it all up (and inland) along the east coast of the U.S.

    Or not (la-la-la).

    Torture is Wrong! We live near W so you don't have to. Send love.

    by tom 47 on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 07:58:12 AM PDT

  •  First of all, kudos for "The Graduate" reference. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BigOkie, Laurence Lewis

    I live on an island off the mid-coast of Maine. I have to use my boat to get to the mainland to get provisions. The other day, I was coming back from port in rough weather and my outboard died. I thought that perhaps I had wrapped my propellor against the line of a lobster pot, which can happen. Nope. It was a plastic garbage bag that someone had discarded in the bay. Piggish behavior, and it could have caused me to run aground in terrible weather conditions.

    Our teabagging Republican gubenatorial candidate here in Maine, Paul LePage, wants to gut the environmental laws that have cleaned up our water. Already, people are throwing things overboard and not just polluting, but putting people like me, who have to commute on a boat (wooden, locally built, I may add) in danger for our lives when this kind of shit is done with impunity. Sheesh.

    Gustav Mahler(1860-1911)is God--Leonard Bernstein.

    by commonmass on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 08:04:00 AM PDT

    •  "Got just one word for you, son" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Yes that was a great reference.  I used it jokingly when I met the guy that was marrying my niece.  He was an actor so he got it.  

      And once again, the forces of niceness and goodness have triumphed over the forces of evil and rottenness." --Maxwell Smart

      by emobile on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 08:35:59 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for writing this. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Laurence Lewis

    Plastic may become one of the worst biological issues of our generation, because it is everywhere, is both a toxin magnet and a toxin leacher, and simply doesn't ever biodegrade.

    Maybe we can teach some of those oil-eating bacteria in the Gulf to find plastic microparticles delicious, but I don't expect it anytime soon.

    Pulling back from using one-time plastic anything is difficult, but necessary. Do you really need that coffee lid? Can you get by with fewer plastic bags, or carry a bag of old ones in your car to take in when you forget to take your eco-bags?

    It's part of an overall shift that has to take place, if we want a future we recognize.

    Humoring the horror of environmental collapse:
    4600+ news items and quips.

    by mwmwm on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 08:17:47 AM PDT

  •  The Sarplasto Sea ! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BigOkie, Laurence Lewis

    As far as the disappearing plastics, well, you're talking Bermuda Triangle, right?

  •  I have been freaked about this (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Laurence Lewis

    problem since reading about it in Nature mag. several years ago. With no international laws about what is dumped in the oceans, or what migrates to the oceans, who is ultimately going to be named responsible, e.g., BP and the oil spill? Our most important source of life on this planet seems to be the final straw of humans' time line or existence on earth.

    I think, therefore I am. I think.

    by mcmom on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 09:28:15 AM PDT

  •  related to other alarming ocean problem? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Laurence Lewis

    Could such an influx of chemicals from plastic possibly be related to the recent catastrophic decline of ocean plankton?

    Just asking.

  •  If we are to rationally evaluate a problem (0+ / 0-)

    and understand appropriate solutions, we should be careful to include as much relevant information as possible.

    For example, Terry Hazen, a microbial ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and principal investigator at the Energy Biosciences Institute, has shown that a previously unknown species of bacteria has responded to the Gulf oil plume by rapidly and dramatically increasing its numbers. Why? Because this bacteria eats oil.

    Hazen is the biologist who first made the discovery of the enormous hidden plume of oil under the surface. His reports were front page news all over the mainstream media - AND, here on Daily Kos and all over the progressive alternative media as well. This was "proof" that reinforced our ideological narratives, and we seized it with all the eagerness of a starving man in the desert.

    Virtually no one is reporting Hazen's followup. In an interview, Hazen said,

    "In the last three weeks, we haven’t been able to detect the deepwater plume anywhere we’ve gone. "It appears to have been completely biodegraded and diluted out. Like the surface (oil), we can no longer find it."

    I guess, in a way, it is fortunate Hazen's subsequent work has not yet been discovered here - he would go from hero to zero in no seconds flat, since his results would no longer support the narrative.

    Sadly, solid science is not supported on Daily Kos, or elsewhere in this overwhelmingly anti-science nation of ours, because of support for the scientific method as a useful tool to help us promulgate more effective public policy and to help us make a less negative, more positive impact on the planet.

    Rather, science is only valued as a tool insomuch as it grants credibility to our prejudices.

    Always make new mistakes - Esther Dyson

    by RandomActsOfReason on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 12:01:53 PM PDT

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