The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Not What You Think It Is | The Swim


SCENES LIKE THIS ARE A DAILY REALITY FOR
THE CREW OF SEEKER ON THEIR PACIFIC TREK. SOME ESTIMATES HOLD THAT BY 2050, THERE COULD
BE AS MUCH PLASTIC AS THERE ARE FISH IN THE OCEAN. BUT WHAT IS ALL THIS JUNK, EXACTLY? WHERE DOES IT COME FROM? AND IS IT REALLY CONCENTRATED IN A GIANT ‘GARBAGE PATCH’ SOMEWHERE OUT THERE? MARCUS ERIKSEN IS AN ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENTIST
WHO HAS MADE IT HIS LIFE’S MISSION TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM OF MARINE PLASTIC. IT’S A GLOBAL ISSUE, BECAUSE PLASTIC ACCUMULATES IN GYRES, LARGE CIRCULAR CURRENTS THAT THREAD
THROUGH THE WORLD’S OCEANS. What’s leaving land heading out to sea is
all the single-use packaging: it’s the straws, the bags, the bottles, the cup lids, the stir
sticks, all this junk that we use once and throw away. A plastic bottle leaving California will get
to Japan in about three to five years and come back across the northern half
of the North Pacific. That spinning mass of water is a gyre. Plastic trash will migrate to those zones
and get stuck. We actually take boats out in the middle of
nowhere, we drag our net behind the boat and we count the plastic particles that are floating. Working with ocean modelers, we can get these
regional maps of how much trash is out there, what it is and where it is. BUT ANSWERING EVEN THESE BASIC QUESTIONS ABOUT MARINE DEBRIS HAS PROVEN TO BE SURPRISINGLY CHALLENGING. IN FACT, EVERYTHING WE KNOW ABOUT THE PROVERBIAL ‘GREAT PACIFIC GARBAGE PATCH’ STARTED IN 1990, WHEN A CONTAINER SHIP SPILLED 61,000 SNEAKERS INTO THE OCEAN. Realizing that a lot of these sneakers would
never come to shore, that they would would just be stuck in this vortex, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, working with
James Ingraham Jr. at NOAA, they’re the ones that came up with the term
‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch.’ CAPTAIN CHARLES MOORE IS OFTEN CREDITED WITH
THE FIRST OBSERVATIONS OF THE PATCH, A CONSTELLATION OF MICROPLASTIC PARTICLES THAT CAPTURED THE PUBLIC’S IMAGINATION. Captain Charles Moore had described the area:
he said, ‘Look, I’m in an area roughly twice the size of Texas where I’m doing my transects’
and that hit the media by storm. There aren’t these islands of trash;
they don’t exist. It’s more like a smog of microplastic particles,
billions of them, very toxic over a wide area. EVEN WHEN THEY BECOME BRITTLE AND BREAK APART, PLASTIC PIECES PERSIST. UNABLE TO OXIDIZE OR BECOME WATERLOGGED LIKE
METALS, WOOD OR PAPER, ALL TYPES OF PLASTIC ARE DESIGNED TO DEFEAT NATURAL DECAY. In general, high density polyethylene, number
two plastic, is the most common plastic in consumer use, and it makes your soap bottles,
it makes your toothbrushes, it makes many of the consumer goods that float out in the
garbage patch. If we think in terms of all the plastic that’s
been produced since 1950, since it’s a synthetic material, hydrocarbons, it’s probably still
here today on the planet. DR. SARAH-JEANNE ROYER WORKS WITH
DR. NIKOLAI MAXIMENKO AND HIS TEAM AT THE UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII TO TACKLE THE PROBLEM OF TRACKING TRASH. Most of the time, we will find only bottle
caps and not the bottle itself because the bottle is made out of PET. It’s sinking because the density of PET is
higher than seawater. DESPITE THE DRAMATIC AMOUNT OF PLASTIC THE
CREW OF SEEKER HAS ENCOUNTERED, SOME ESTIMATES HOLD THAT 99% OF OCEAN-BOUND PLASTIC WASTE IS STILL UNACCOUNTED FOR. THAT’S WHY SARAH’S TEAM IS WORKING WITH
THE SWIM EXPEDITION AND THE OCEAN VOYAGES INSTITUTE TO TAG AND TRACK THE WASTE THEY FIND. The Swim are using two different protocols. The first protocol is a visual survey of all
marine debris they see from the vessel itself. Whenever they find an object that is large
enough, they will get closer to the debris, they will take pictures of it. If there are numbers or lettering, they will
share this information with us, so we can track back the origin of that debris. The second protocol is basically to attach
a GPS buoy onto a marine debris to track their movement in
the ocean. ONCE THE TRACKER IS ACTIVATED, IT ENABLES
SCIENTISTS TO BOTH IMPROVE MODELS OF HOW TRASH TRAVELS  IN THE OCEAN, AND LEARN WHERE TO FOCUS CLEANUP EFFORTS. MOST OF THE TIME, SARAH AND HER TEAM CAN’T IMMEDIATELY TELL WHERE A PIECE OF PLASTIC COMES FROM. BUT THEY CAN LOOK FOR OTHER CLUES. We need to use an FTIR or micro-Raman spectroscopy. This spectrum is matching a spectrum that is found in the library telling us what is the type of plastic. It’s probably the dream of all scientists
to have a satellite and a new instrumentation to be able to quantify the amount of plastic
floating at sea. THE ENTIRE LIFE CYCLE OF PLASTIC IS POISONOUS. ITS MANUFACTURING PROCESS DEPENDS ON HARMFUL CHEMICALS, AND WHEN RELEASED INTO THE ENVIRONMENT, IT SOAKS UP EVEN MORE TOXINS, AND TRANSPORTS THEM FAR AND WIDE… INCLUDING INTO OUR BODIES. PLASTIC CAN CHOKE THE OCEAN’S ABILITY TO ABSORB CO2 FROM THE ATMOSPHERE,
EXACERBATING CLIMATE CHANGE. Only 10 percent of the habitat is on land. The rest, 90 percent of the habitat’s in the
ocean, and it’s totally unexplored for the most part. Imagining all the jungles, all
the deserts, all the savannas, all the Rocky Mountains… the ocean would be nine times more. The idea that somehow it could be 50 percent
plastic, 50 percent fish in a mere 30 years is horrifying. BUT THE SITUATION IS FAR FROM HOPELESS. ORGANIZATIONS ARE DEVELOPING INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS TO CLEAN UP OCEAN PLASTIC. MATERIALS SCIENTISTS ARE TURNING THEIR ATTENTION TO NEW PACKAGING SOLUTIONS. AND CONSUMERS ARE MAKING MORE INFORMED CHOICES EVERY DAY. How can we use our science to influence laws and policymakers? When you refuse the single-use plastics, it
has an effect on your neighborhood, on your local watershed, and the ocean. Now, seeing the UN talking about it, seeing
companies rise up and say, ‘We’re going zero waste.’ To see countries make a commitment to stop
the flow of trash from land to sea… I feel optimistic that we can solve this problem. Be sure to visit Seeker.com/TheSwim to read
daily updates from Ben Lecomte, track his progress in real time, and watch more videos
about the science happening onboard Seeker. Click here for this next episode, and don’t
forget to subscribe. Thanks for watching.

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