02 February 2011

First expedition to the south Atlantic subtropical gyre to study plastic pollution

Piriapolis, Uruguay — The 5 Gyres Institute will land in Piriapolis, Uruguay on 5 February, 2011 after completing a third expedition across the South Atlantic Subtropical Gyre studying plastic marine pollution. Sailing aboard their partner organisation Pangaea Exploration’s research vessel the Sea Dragon, the crew set sail from Walvis Bay, Namibia after a successful expedition in November 2010 from Brazil to South Africa to conduct the first ever transatlantic research study of The South Atlantic Gyre.

In total, the 5 Gyres Institute has spent over 75 days at sea sampling surface waters between South America and Southern Africa, from Rio de Janeiro to Ascension Island and back, Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town, to Namibia, to Uruguay with a stop over on the Atlantic island of St Helena. In every sample along the way, plastic particles were present.

“It’s like finding a can of Coco-Cola in outer space. Plastic does not belong in the ocean,” says waste management policy expert and crew member, Megan Ponder, after witnessing high densities of plastic particles in the middle of the ocean for the first time.

With more than 150 samples of surface water for micro-fragments of plastic pollution, the 5 Gyres Institute has successfully demonstrated that plastic pollution is rampant on the global stage.

“In order to find a global solution to a global problem, we must first understand the nature of the issue and its scope. For years, scientists have focused on the Northern Hemisphere in terms of plastic pollution. We’re sailing around the world to all five subtropical gyres,” says Dr Marcus Eriksen, co-founder and scientist for the 5 Gyres Institute. “In every sample taken, no matter where we are in the world’s oceans, one thing is the same: plastic.” 

Towards the centre of the gyre, the crew observed a high frequency of macro plastic pollution passing alongside the ship in the form of buckets, crates, detergent bottles, bottle caps and fishing related debris, like buoys and ghosts nets. But most of the plastic waste found by the 5 Gyres team are small, broken down particles spread out over large areas of ocean.

“There is a persistent media misconception of ‘islands’ of plastic the size of small states,” says 5Gyres co-founder and educator Anna Cummins. “It’s more of a thin plastic soup, which is a challenge to communicate to the public, and an even greater challenge to clean up. The best way to clean our ocean is to start on land, reducing the flow of plastic into our oceans, and cleaning our local beaches. Gyres will eventually kick plastic out if we stop adding more.”

In addition to studying plastic density, type and spatial distribution, The 5 Gyres Institute analyzes plastic particles adrift at sea for chemical uptake. Plastic has been shown to absorb persistent organic pollutants such as DDT, flame retardants, (PBDEs) PCBs, and PAHs, at high concentrations. Plastic particles may act as a vector for pollutants, transferring them to the marine food chain through foraging fish. 5 Gyres Institute, in partnership with the United Nations Environment Program’s Safe Planet campaign, is working to educate the global community on the potential human health implications of plastic marine pollution.

Our two principle partner organizations are Pangaea Explorations, who own and operate the vessel, Sea Dragon, and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which operates the laboratory where sea samples are processed. The South Atlantic is the fourth gyre expedition for the 5 Gyres team, having completed research expeditions across the North Pacific, North Atlantic, and Indian Ocean gyres in recent years.In March of 2011, we will conduct the first expedition to the South Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

The institute’s goal is to understand the spatial and temporal distribution of plastic marine pollution in the world’s oceans, understand potential impacts on marine fisheries and human health, and communicate the results to an international community of NGOs, universities and governments, and encourage practical, effective solutions to this global issue. 
Anna Brones

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