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Fishing for plastic in the open ocean on the Rozalia in the 2013 Gaia to Gyre expedition. Photo: Ceri Lewis via Flickr.

Fishing for plastic in the open ocean on the Rozalia in the 2013 Gyre to Gaia expedition. Photo: Ceri Lewis via Flickr.

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Microplastic ocean pollution - will you join our research voyage?

Kate Rawles

5th August 2014

Plastic pollution in the oceans is impacting every level of marine life, writes Kate Rawles, from micro-plankton to whales. And here is your chance to do something about it - join a research expedition to the Azores next month to study the problem and develop solutions!

There is no such thing as 'away'. Away is, for vast and increasing quantities of plastic, the ocean.

Ocean plastic pollution has hit the headlines with images that have haunted many of us - turtles choke-wrapped in plastic bags and deeply disturbing shots of the plastic-dominated stomach contents of a dead albatross, complete with cigarette lighter.

In a binge of reading in preparation for the 'Gaia to Gyre' sailing trip this autumn, I've been discovering that the issue of ocean microplastics - insidious, pervasive and much less publicised - is every bit as alarming.

Microplastics, defined as less than 5mm, are the most abundant form of solid-waste pollution on the planet. Their source? There are several. One is the billions of minute beads of plastic used as exfoliants in cosmetics - wholly unnecessary as some brands manage just fine with sawdust.

Rather harder to eliminate are the billions of slightly bigger beads of plastic known as nurdles, transported around the world as the raw material for larger pieces of plastic. Hong Kong's beaches were struck by a major nurdle crisis in 2012 - and the clean up continues.

Larger pieces of plastic - a substance that has only been in existence in any quantity since the 1950's - also degrade into smaller and smaller pieces. In addition, fibrous microplastics can be traced back to synthetics like polyester, releasing up to 1,900 minute fibres on every wash.

Microplastics are everywhere ...

Like macroplastics, microplastics are found throughout ocean ecosystems, from beaches, to the sea surface, throughout the water column, on the sea-bed and in the under-sea sediment.

Their potential ecological impacts are magnified by their diminutive size; the smaller they are, the more widely distributed, and the wider the range of organisms that could ingest them. Laboratory work strongly suggests that these organisms include creatures like lugworms and a range of zooplankton at the very base of the marine food web.

Groundbreaking research at the University of Exeter shows that, as with larger animals like fulmars, albatross and leatherback turtles, lugworms that have ingested plastic eat less, lose condition and have lower energy. Essentially, they fill up with plastic that cannot be digested, leaving no room for 'real' food.

We know that larger animals can suffer internal abrasions and/or blockages from plastic particles - like the dead pygmy sperm whale in Texas that had "a plastic rubbish bin liner; a bread wrapper; a crisp packet and two other pieces of plastic sheeting choking off its stomach."

Or the two sperm whales near California who contained "over a hundred kilos of net fragments, line and plastics bags" between them, as reported by Roberts in his book Oceans of Life; How Our Seas Are Changing [Roberts, 2012, p146].

From lugworms to zooplankton

It is likely that smaller creatures will be subject to these plastic-related casualties too. In the case of lugworms - who constitute up to 30% of the biomass of your average sandy beach, providing critical ecosystem services such as oxygenation of the ocean sediment (as well as food) - any loss of condition and function could clearly have ecosystem-wide implications.

And then there is the issue of toxic transfer and bioaccumulation. Chemical additives used in plastics such as dyes, flame-retardants and numerous others can leach out of the plastics and into the organisms that ingest them.

In addition, plastics are 'sticky', attracting persistent organic pollutants or POPs. In both cases, pollutants including endocrine disrupters and carcinogens can be accumulated and magnified as they pass through the food chain from zooplankton upwards.

A key aim of the Gyre to Gaia voyage, setting out from the UK this September for the Azores and Lanzarote via the North Atlantic Gyre, is to find 'real world' evidence that zooplankton ingest microplastics. Given the role of these animals in ocean food webs, the significance of this research is hard to overstate.

Working out the solutions

And the other aim? To draw together an interdisciplinary crew who - in between sailing the beautiful 72ft yacht Sea Dragon and supporting the science - will explore the issue of ocean plastic pollution and, above all, debate and advocate solutions to design-out marine plastic pollution.

And solutions are urgently needed. We create millions of tonnes of plastic annually, using about 8% of our entire global oil production to do so. About a third of all this plastic is turned into disposable packaging, used once and thrown away.

Part of the problem is that, to employ a pertinent cliche, there is no such thing as 'away'. Away is, for vast and increasing quantities of plastic, the ocean.

Plastic is dumped overboard (illegally) or accidentally lost overboard in marine transportation. Plastic is blown from landfills to the sea, or washed there via rivers. Plastic beads in cosmetics, creams and soaps, too small to be captured in our waste treatment systems, are flushed there via the world's sinks and drains.

Anyone who has sailed through the astonishing accumulation of plastics in the world's ocean gyres, or been brought up short by thick orange and turquoise tidemarks of plastic while strolling on otherwise beautiful beaches, can testify to the sheer and shocking quantity of the stuff.

So how can we challenge and change this out of sight out of mind mentality - and clean up its worst results?

More clever than wise

Clearly, better waste management systems have to be part of the solution. Others on the table include the possibility of changing design standards, an approach advocated by the curators of 'Gyre to Gaia', Common Seas.

Can we, for example, create plastics that fully degrade? Or perhaps that don't degrade at all? Another idea involves creating an economic market for plastic wastes, which can then be 'upcycled' - incentivising 'fishing' for ocean plastic as a resource.

Then there are a raft of questions about consumer behaviour - our behaviour - and how we might change it in this context; from boycotting plastic bags to recycling to reducing our overall consumption of stuff in general.

And here's where the really big questions start to surface. Ocean plastic pollution is an example of a recurring human tendency - an outstanding case of sheer human brilliance in the sphere of technology (plastic is without question an astonishingly useful substance) coupled with utter lack of wisdom in its deployment.

It is literally insane to be using a resource as precious as oil to create plastics that we use for the totally trivial as often as the vital - and then discard. In the USA alone, to take just one example, 2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away every hour.

And it's a substance utterly incompatible with ecological systems. Once thrown into them it stays there, indigestible, its embedded energy inaccessible; a toxic, hazardous, immutable blockage in the natural cycles of life.

A destructive synergy of marine impacts

But plastic pollution is by no means the only major human-caused problem affecting marine ecosystems.

Throw in ocean acidification, overfishing and eutrophication dead zones to mention but a few (and we're just beginning to understand how these issues interact) and the thought that ocean plastic pollution, for all its severity, is only one symptom of a deeper set of underlying problems comes home to roost like an albatross in the rigging.

I imagine that at least two main candidates for underlying root cause will be on the Sea Dragon's decks for discussion. One is the collision between growth and the planet's ecological limits. Growth of resource consumption, growth of human population and growth of the various kinds of pollution that are a side-effect of the first two.

The other is our dominant conception of nature, including the oceans, as an infinite resource and/or dumping ground - and of ourselves as a vastly superior and somehow detached-from-nature species.

Robert MacFarlane, on return from the Arctic, wrote: "There is no more urgent intellectual task facing the human species ... than thoroughly to re-imagine its relationship with nature ..."

We'll be working on that too. Amazing where some small bits of plastic can take you. Do join us.



Crew wanted! Win a bursary place for 'Gaia to Gyre' Azores sailing adventure with a focus on human/nature relations and microplastics - an adventure with a purpose. Applications deadline - 8th August.

Sail UK to Azores or Azores to Lanzarote exploring human nature relations, ocean plastic pollution and solutions. 17 - 28 Sept UK Azores; 4 - 12 Oct Azores - Lanzarote.

More information: Common Seas are the curators of 'Gaia to Gyre'.

Dr Kate Rawles is a freelance Outdoor Philosophy, writer and activist. She runs regular reconnection-with-nature sea kayaking courses for environmentalists who spend too much time with their computers and is the academic director of Reconnections@Findhorn (with Jonathon Porritt and Forum for the Future).

She is passionate about communicating environmental issues through adventure travel and is is the author of The Carbon Cycle; crossing the great divide (Two Ravens Press 2012), based on her 4553 mile bike ride from Texas to Alaska exploring N. American attitudes to climate change.

Her next big trip will be in the Andes, with a focus on biodiversity. She has just left the University of Cumbria where she lectured on environmental issues, environmental ethics and sustainability. She is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and sits on the Food Ethics Council. More info at:

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