Today is day seven of the cruise and we have officially begun our 24-hour sampling periods. We have hit our first of three gyre stations and the chaos has ensued. Sleep is needed, but energy is still high! At the end of the day… it’s running smoothly, whew!
I am Chelsea Rochman and it seems to me that as the nets come in from the surface we are consistently seeing plastic pellets. We have also brought aboard some macro-debris (large pieces of plastic) with fouling communities, composed of benthic (bottom dwelling) organisms, rafting upon them. I think that each person came onto this cruise with a different expectation of just what we might find. Regardless of what we thought previously, it has become clear that plastic debris does exist in the North Pacific Ocean Gyre. As of day five we began to see small plastic debris coming up in the manta net consistently. We have also been plastic watching, as opposed to whale watching, from the bridge and have seen a fair amount of debris of all sizes. As a graduate student whose thesis relies on plastic in the ocean, you would think that seeing plastic in the ocean might be a relief or exciting. However, I can truthfully say that was not the case. As plastics began to float by and come aboard in nets my stomach flip-flopped and I felt legitimately sad. I believed it would be there, but to see it is a different story. While on the way here I thought about how large the ocean really is and how small we actually are. Then, to see our plastic debris in the middle of this large stretch of ocean far from land offers a wake up call for the way us humans have the ability to leave our footprint on remote places on Earth. As a person concerned with the fate of the planet you really have to choose your battles. One cannot say that one issue is more important than the other, but since we are here and this is a battle I have chosen, I would like to talk about it in a little bit more detail. So, let’s talk trash!…
Trash, not only in the form of plastics, has been a problem since man’s earliest times. Since the industrial revolution the amount of debris has accumulated exponentially. Plastic in particular was invented in 1862, and since its invention it has become so widespread because it is cheap, durable, and lightweight. Plastic interestingly enough is made out of one of our most precious and controversial resources: oil. The oil is made into small pre-production pellets, a.k.a. resin pellets or nurdles, of various kinds to be melted down into any kind of plastic product. Many of our products that we purchase have a triangle on the bottom of the item with a number in it (1-7). This number is indicative of the type of resin pellets that were melted down in the form of say a bottle or butter tub. The next time you use a plastic product look for the number and you can tell what kind of plastic it is: #1-PET, #2-HDPE, #3-PVC, #4-LDPE, #5-PP, #6-PS, and #7 is a combo of many types. The purpose of this number is to provide guidance for what to do with that item when you no longer need it. None of these numbers indicate that the plastic belongs in the oceans.
There are four general things civilizations do with trash: recycle, burn, dump, and waste minimization. In terms of plastic the ideal way to handle it is waste minimization, which would include reducing and reusing. The next best step is to recycle if the city that you live in allows it. Some cities will only allow you to recycle certain types of plastics while others enforce recycling of all materials. It is important to know what your city will allow. Aside from taking proper care of your own waste there are other ways to help reduce this issue: educate others about what they can do with their trash, participate in a local cleanup, or volunteer for an organization that has a plastic debris campaign.
I heard a quote this week that I would like to share, “it does not make sense to make disposable items out of a permanent material.” Plastics do not biodegrade, they photodegrade, but the light does not degrade them away, it simply degrades them into smaller and smaller pieces. The quote “plastic is forever” had some truth to it. It is true that plastics can be really important and necessary. I am in no way arguing that plastic is evil and should be removed from this Earth. However, we have become a “throw away” society out of convenience. One of my favorite quotes to live by applies to plastics, “everything in moderation.”
Chelsea Rochman uses a dip net to collect specimens for laboratory study while at the same time keeping an eye out for any large pieces of marine debris.