Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Research ship finds the world's oceans are 'plasticized'

By Rose Hoare, for CNN
May 22, 2012 -- Updated 1403 GMT (2203 HKT)
Expeditions to ocean gyres sometimes encounter 'ghost nets' - discarded fishing equipment that can tangle into a hazard for marine organisms. Expeditions to ocean gyres sometimes encounter 'ghost nets' - discarded fishing equipment that can tangle into a hazard for marine organisms.
HIDE CAPTION
Swimming in 'synthetic soup'
Toxic diet
Trawling for plastic
MIcroscopic particles
Tsunami debris a new hazard
On the expedition
A plastic garbage patch veteran
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A research expedition has found plastic in the last unexplored part of the ocean
  • The crew, which includes packaging experts, is studying the effects on marine life of plastic pollution
  • It will next attempt to measure the density and toxicity of Japanese tsunami debris
  • Plastic in the ocean has increased 100-fold in the last 40 years, scientists estimate

(CNN) -- A marine expedition of environmentalists has confirmed the bad news it feared -- the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" extends even further than previously known.

Organized by two non-profit groups -- the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and the 5 Gyres Institute -- the expedition is sailing from the Marshall Islands to Japan through a "synthetic soup" of plastic in the North Pacific Ocean on a 72-feet yacht called the Sea Dragon, provided by Pangaea Exploration.

The area is part of one of the ocean's five tropical gyres -- regions where bodies of water converge, with currents delivering high concentrations of plastic debris. The Sea Dragon is visiting the previously unexplored western half of the North Pacific gyre -- situated below the 35th parallel, and home to a massive expanse of plastic particles known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" -- to look for plastic pollution and study its effect on marine life.

Leading the expedition is Marcus Eriksen, a former U.S. marine and Ph.D student from University of Southern California.

Our nets come up with a handful of plastic fragments at a time, in every trawl we've done for the last thousand miles.
Marcus Eriksen, expedition leader

"We've been finding lots of micro plastics, all the size of a grain of rice or a small marble," Eriksen said via satellite phone. "We drag our nets and come up with a small handful, like confetti -- 10, 20, 30 fragments at a time. That's how it's been, every trawl we've done for the last thousand miles."

Eriksen, who has sailed through all five gyres, said this confirmed for him "that the world's oceans are 'plasticized.' Everywhere you go in the ocean, you're going to find this plastic waste."

Growing glaciers smother climate debate

First wave of tsunami debris hits U.S.
Quake, tsunami debris threaten coastlines
Japan quake debris moving toward Hawaii

Besides documenting the existence of plastic pollution, the expedition intends to study how long it takes for communities of barnacles, crabs and molluscs to establish, whether the plastic can serve as a raft for species to cross continents, and the prevalence of chemical pollutants.

On a second leg from Tokyo to Hawaii departing May 30, the team expect to encounter material dislodged by the Japanese tsunami.

"We'll be looking for debris that's sub-surface: overturned boats, refrigerators, things that wind is not affecting," Eriksen said. "We'll get an idea of how much is out there, what's going on and what it's carrying with it, in terms of toxins."

Scripps Institute graduate Miriam Goldstein was chief scientist on a similar expedition to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2009. According to her research, there has been a 100-fold increase in plastic garbage in the last 40 years, most of it broken down into tiny crumbs to form a concentrated soup.

The particles are so small and profuse that they can't be dredged out. "You need a net with very fine mesh and then you're catching baby fish, baby squid -- everything," Goldstein says. "For every gram of plastic you're taking out, you probably take out more or less the equivalent of sea life."

We don't necessarily want an ocean stuffed with barnacles
Miriam Goldstein, scientist

Scientists are worried that the marine organisms that adapt to the plastic could displace existing species. Goldstein said this was a major concern, as organisms that grow on hard surfaces tend to monopolize already scarce food, to the detriment of other species.

"Things that can grow on the plastic are kind of weedy and low diversity -- a parallel of the things that grow on the sides of docks," she says. "We don't necessarily want an ocean stuffed with barnacles."

Sea-level rise: Impacts and mitigation measures around the world

Eriksen says the mood on the Sea Dragon has been upbeat, with crew members playing a ukulele and doing yoga, "but the sobering reality is that we're trawling through a synthetic soup."

Also on board is Valerie Lecoeur, founder of a company that makes eco-friendly baby and children's products, including biodegradable beach toys made from corn, and Michael Brown from Packaging 2.0, a packaging consultancy.

Eriksen says they have been discussing the concept of "extended producer responsibility".

"As the manufacturer of any good in the world today, you really can't make your product without a plan for its entire use, because you could eventually have 7 billion customers buy your product," he said.

"If one little button has no plan, the world now has a mountain of buttons to deal with. There is no room for waste, as a concept or a place -- there's just no place to put it anymore. That's the reality we need to face. We've got this plastic everywhere."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
January 21, 2013 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Patricia Wu looks at efforts to combat food waste in Hong Kong.
January 14, 2013 -- Updated 0233 GMT (1033 HKT)
CNN's Pauline Chiou goes to Hong Kong's annual toy fair to find out about the growing market for eco-friendly toys.
December 31, 2012 -- Updated 0415 GMT (1215 HKT)
CNN's Liz Neisloss reports on a roof that is only a sample of the greening of Singapore's skyline.
December 19, 2012 -- Updated 0216 GMT (1016 HKT)
A dam project in Cambodia could destroy livelihoods and ecosystems, says Conservation International
December 18, 2012 -- Updated 0322 GMT (1122 HKT)
Shipping lines, port authorities and technology companies are taking the initiative to go green and reduce costs.
December 10, 2012 -- Updated 0206 GMT (1006 HKT)
Less than 20 miles from Singapore's skyscrapers is a completely different set of high-rise towers.
December 6, 2012 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
The Pitcairn Islands might only have 55 human inhabitants, but the waters surrounding them are teeming with marine life.
December 3, 2012 -- Updated 0322 GMT (1122 HKT)
Biofuel made from sugar cane waste in Brazil could revolutionize the global energy industry.
November 26, 2012 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
Many believe that fuel-cell cars will overtake electric vehicles in the near future.
November 19, 2012 -- Updated 0820 GMT (1620 HKT)
Modern and sustainable buildings in the UAE are taking cues from an ancient Arabic design tradition.
November 12, 2012 -- Updated 0409 GMT (1209 HKT)
One man's artistic vision is distracting divers from Cancun's threatened underwater ecosystem.
November 12, 2012 -- Updated 1746 GMT (0146 HKT)
Lake Victoria, Africa's largest lake, has been plagued by water hyacinth plants for over two decades.
A turtle on Australia's Great Barrier Reef
Just how much are natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef worth in monetary terms?
ADVERTISEMENT