Stories tagged marine debris

Apr
06
2011

My friend Rebecca has been rumored to throw a fine “But Does it Taste Good?” party, wherein she and others seek out cookbooks from days of yore (Velveeta Nutburgers anyone?)Velveeta "Cheese": Springboard for the culinary arts.
Velveeta "Cheese": Springboard for the culinary arts.Courtesy PeRshGo
and test out seemingly horrific recipes that have no other possibility than somehow tasting good because they’re 1) tested and considered good enough to be printed in a book; and 2) the product of combined ingredients so repugnant that only a kitchen savant would ever consider putting such nasty, curdle-prone things together to get something so freakishly magnificent.

So when I read this article, Building a 'Nano-Brick' Wall Around Fresh Food, and envisioned several-weeks-old produce in the desert, I wondered: 1) But does it taste good? (the food; not the packaging), and 2) But does it biodegrade? (the packaging; not the food).

Now, let it be known to the universe: I hate plastic. I know, I know it’s been so helpful to our lives on so many levels – and yes, I do use it – but honestly, one viewing of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (you know, that that great trash mass twice the size of Texas floating out in the Pacific Ocean?), and it’s likely you, too, will clamor for any kind of plastic alternative whenever possible. So when I read about potential awesomeness like this new nano-clay-based packaging, I can’t help but get a little excited. Albatross Chick: This Laysan Albatross chick has been accidentally fed plastic by its parents and died as a result.
Albatross Chick: This Laysan Albatross chick has been accidentally fed plastic by its parents and died as a result.Courtesy Duncan Wright

And then my little shoulder-side Nano Skeptic poofs into existence and starts asking more questions. Questions that are beyond my ability to scientifically answer. You see, the creators tout this stuff as being a veritable fortress against the evils of oxygen - chastity belt inside a Safe Room inside a maximum-security prison, if you will. So if it’s that strong, that secure against oxygen, does that mean it’s less likely to biodegrade? Are we potentially replacing plastic with something even worse? Are we providing a much-needed, valuable service to those who are hungry (YAY!) to the long-term detriment of the planet (BOO!)? Does the benefit outweigh the risk?

And honestly, it’s questions like these that make me want to chuck it all and go live in a treehouse for the rest of my days.

Jan
28
2011

ocean micro-plastic: These samples were collected from the surface water of the North Pacific Ocean by the SUPER expedition in 2008.
ocean micro-plastic: These samples were collected from the surface water of the North Pacific Ocean by the SUPER expedition in 2008.Courtesy C-MORE
Who hasn’t heard that plastic in the ocean is trouble?

  • Plastic has been found clogging the stomachs of dead albatross and other ocean birds.
  • Plastic ropes and traps have entangled marine life, causing more death.
  • As a long-lasting chemical, plastic floating in the ocean provides long-distance rafts that may move aggressive alien marine life to new areas.
  • Plastic may provide a “sticky” surface where toxins can accumulate, becoming a concentrated source of poison for marine consumers.
  • A "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" has been reported to be an "island the size of Texas" floating in the North Pacific Ocean...but is this really true? Continue reading to find out!

Yep, plastic in the ocean is bad news; so let’s put scientific energy into studying and solving the problem.

manta trawl: The trawl is hoisted above the stern deck of the RV Kilo Moana.
manta trawl: The trawl is hoisted above the stern deck of the RV Kilo Moana.Courtesy C-MORE
In 2008 C-MORE, the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research & Education headquartered at the University of Hawai`i, with assistance from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, embarked on an oceanographic expedition aboard the RV Kilo Moana, which means "oceanographer" in Hawaiian. The goal of the expedition, dubbed SUPER (Survey of Underwater Plastic and Ecosystem Response Cruise), was to measure the amount of micro-plastic in the ocean. In addition, oceanographers took samples to study microbes and seawater chemistry associated with the ocean plastic. The Kilo Moana sailed right through the area known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” between Hawai`i and California.

Early results: there was no garbage patch/island. Once in a while something like a barnacle-covered plastic buoy would float past the ship, but mostly the ocean looked really clean and empty of any kind of marine debris.

manta trawl: The net is being pulled slowly through the ocean's surface water.
manta trawl: The net is being pulled slowly through the ocean's surface water.Courtesy C-MORE
But wait! Scientists looked closer and were amazed. Every single one of the more than a dozen manta trawls, filtering the surface seawater for an hour and a half each, brought up pieces of micro-plastic! Some were as small as 0.2 millimeter, mixed among zooplankton!

Other expeditions have reported similar results (for example, Scripps Institution of Oceanography's 2009 SEAPLEX expedition and Sea Education Association's North Atlantic Expedition 2010): no Texas-size garbage patches, but plenty of plastic marine debris to worry about. The data seem to show that most of the plastic is in the form of small pieces spread throughout upper levels of water at some locations around the world's ocean. In these areas, the ocean is like a dilute soup of plastic.

Dr. White: examining the results of a manta tow
Dr. White: examining the results of a manta towCourtesy C-MORE
C-MORE researcher Dr. Angelicque (Angel) White, assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State University (OSU) was a scientist on board the SUPER expedition. In recent interviews, (for example: the Corvallis Gazette-Times and Seadiscovery.com) Dr. White cautions us to view the complex plastic marine debris problem accurately. Furthermore, new results will soon be published by C-MORE about microbial diversity and activity on plastic pieces.

In the meantime, as Dr. White says, “…let’s keep working on eliminating plastics from the ocean so one day we can say the worst it ever became was a dilute soup, not islands. “

Plastic in the ocean is trouble. How can you be part of the solution?

Nov
29
2010

The Hawaiian monk seal, Monachus schauinslandi, is known to the Native Hawaiians as 'ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua', or "dog that runs in rough water".

Hawaiian Monk Seal
Hawaiian Monk SealCourtesy Karen Holman and James Watt

This endangered seal, along with the Hawaiian Hoary Bat, are the only mammals endemic to the Hawaiian Archipelago: they are found nowhere else in the world.

Seals can be injured or killed by becoming entangled in marine debris.

There are fewer than 1200 Hawaiian monk seals left in the wild. If you are lucky enough to see one on a beach or swimming, please keep your distance and do not disturb them: they are protected by both state and federal laws. 

The capital of New Rubbishland: Little Filthington.
The capital of New Rubbishland: Little Filthington.Courtesy brutal
Like The Highlander, there can be only one Trashlantis.

And yet, the presence of another garbage island has been declared, in the Atlantic Ocean this time. (The quick Trashlantis disclaimer: it's not really an island or a continent, or something you could even see from the the surface. It's lots and lots of tiny bits of floating plastic. Just thought we'd go over that again.)

The patch spans about 16 degrees of latitude, and it shall henceforth be known as... New Rubbishland.

(Good looking out, Gene.)

Aug
05
2009

Somewhere, beyond the sea: Somewhere, a plastic continent that you're missing out on.
Somewhere, beyond the sea: Somewhere, a plastic continent that you're missing out on.Courtesy teapic
Pack your bags, Buzzketeers, because you don’t want to be the last person to make it to the world’s newest, creepiest continent. (Don’t worry, Australia, I’m not talking about you.)

Trashlantis! The new frontier! The Texas-sized plastic layer floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Why would you not want to go there? The answer, of course, is that you wouldn’t not want to go there… ever!

Yet another scientific expedition is on its way to the fabled plastic continent. But while the last group of researchers mentioned on Buzz was at least partially motivated by the potential to turn Trashlantis back into some more useful hydrocarbons, it looks like these folks are more interested in seeing how the plastic is affecting sea life.

The Yahoo article linked to above sums up the expedition with:

”The expedition will study how much debris -- mostly tiny plastic fragments -- is collecting in an expanse of sea known as the North Pacific Ocean Gyre, how that material is distributed and how it affects marine life.”

I’m guessing what they’re getting at has to do with how plastic affects very very small organisms as it photodegrades. We understand how chunks of plastic in the ocean are no good for larger animals—marine life can choke on them, or fill their stomachs with trash—but the problem goes further than that. See, eventually those larger pieces of plastic start to photodegrade. (That means they get broken down by the energy in sunlight.) But photodegredation doesn’t seem to actually get rid of the plastic, it just breaks it into increasingly smaller pieces. When a plastic bag turns into a million little tiny chunks, it no longer poses a risk for, say, a sea gull choking on it. But smaller organisms are still likely to gobble some up, and if they can eat anything bigger than they can poop (it happens), they’re in a lot of trouble. And when small organisms die off, so do the slightly larger creatures that eat them, and the larger creatures that eat them, and so on. (You remember this from grade school.) So how will Trashlantis fit into this plasticky food-path?

And then there’s the huge real estate potential for Trashlantis. So get there now.

May
25
2009

The HMS Fiddlesticks will also be sailing to Trashlantis: Where it will promptly be abandoned, with all the other garbage.
The HMS Fiddlesticks will also be sailing to Trashlantis: Where it will promptly be abandoned, with all the other garbage.Courtesy hexodus...
You all remember Trashlantis, right?

In case you do remember, but still feel like reading a summary anyway, here: Trashlantis was only named “Trashlantis” in early 2008 by one marginally-informed science blogger, but—considering how the fabled floating garbage continent is made of your trash, and your parents’ trash, and your grandparents’ trash—it has been around for a good while longer than that. Trashlantis, also referred to as the “Eastern Garbage Patch” and the “Plastic Vortex,” is a floating mass of plasticy waste from Asia and North America, which has sort of congealed in the center of the Pacific Ocean. Ocean currents have brought our plastic there and kept if there since we realized how much fun it was to throw plastic into the ocean, about 60 years ago. Today the floating mass is continent-sized in surface area. (It’s the size of the Lower 48, or twice the size of Texas, or just really, really, really big, depending on who you believe.)

There hasn’t been a whole lot of research done on the Eastern Garbage Patch—oh, shucks, let’s just call it Trashlantis—partly because it’s way out in the ocean (about 500 miles off the coast of California), but mostly, according to scientists, because it’s “super yucky.”

However, a group of scientists and entrepreneurs is now planning to sail to (through) Trashlantis aboard the 145-foot-tall sailboat, the Kaisei, accompanied by a fishing trawler. The scientists intend to study the plastic mass to determine the extent of its toxic effect on the sea and sediment beneath it, while international business man and pectoral enthusiast Doug Woodring hopes to see if the waste might be able to be collected to be recycled or used as fuel.

Part of the problem with Trashlantis is that because the plastic has been floating out in the sun for decades, it’s starting to break down. It’s not necessarily breaking down in a good way—think soda bottles turning into poisonous goop, not banana peels turning into fertile compost—and scooping it up in nets is going to be difficult, if we don’t want to snag too many fish and too much plankton along with it (we don’t want to). Trashlantis, sadly, is very much what many people refer to as “a hot, sticky mess.”

The expedition looks like a good step towards understanding the problem, and maybe developing a solution. And don’t anybody even think about taking the voyagetotrashlantismovie.kz url, because as soon as I can scrounge up ten dollars, that sucker is mine, and I’m going to be taking Paramount to the cleaners next summer.

Feb
08
2008

Building a better future: One piece of junk at a time.
Building a better future: One piece of junk at a time.Courtesy thebigdurian
Just when you started to think things weren’t cool anymore (I know you were thinking that), something great comes up in the news, and turns your frown… upside down.

For the last few years the world has been sulking and pouting over the lack of continents. “We’ve discovered them all,” people say. Or, “Look at that darn Pacific Ocean, sitting there with practically no continents in it.” Or, “Hawaii must be so lonely!” Well, Lonesome No More!, Hawaii, because you’ve got a new friend, a friend the size of the continental United States!

Where did this massive mass come from? And how could such a thing have gone so far unnoticed? Whoa, explorers, one question at a time! The mass came from our own human ingenuity! That is to say, it’s trash! And we don’t really notice it because it’s largely translucent plastic, and because it’s located just beneath the surface of the ocean, so it can’t be seen in satellite photographs!

Now before you get excited and start purchasing real estate (although I like the way you think), our new garbage blob isn’t quite ready for building yet. It’s currently more of a “plastic soup,” held together by “swirling underwater current.” It is, nonetheless, a fairly cohesive chunk of junk, consisting of two connected bodies that span from about five hundred miles off of California almost to Japan.

Like many natural and quasi-natural wonders, however, Trashlantis is being threatened. Primarily by aquatic animals. Nearly 100,000 aquatic mammals choose to kill themselves every year by abusing floating garbage in some way or another, and sea birds have proven to be shameless garbage thieves, spiriting away everything from toothbrushes, to lighters, to syringes from our trashy endeavor. Where’s the proof? Inside their dead stomachs. Try to hide that, birds!

Approximately a fifth of the garbage dumped into the ocean comes from oil platforms and ships. If you want to ensure that Trashlantis remains more than a fable for your children and grandchildren, though, be sure to do your part, and produce as much plastic waste as possible, and dispose of it improperly.