News

    Plastic Trash in Oceans Enters Marine Food Chain

    Marcus Eriksen is on a global expedition to document and publicize the growing accumulation of plastic trash in our oceans, and to study its effects on marine and human life
    Marcus Eriksen is on a global expedition to document and publicize the growing accumulation of plastic trash in our oceans, and to study its effects on marine and human life

    Multimedia

    During the past half-century, a growing portion of what we eat, drink or use has come in plastic packaging - petroleum-based containers that are sturdy and long-lasting, yet are used only briefly and then thrown away.  Daily, we use and discard billions of plastic bags and bottles, and much of this trash ends up littering the environment or, increasingly, being washed out to sea. Many scientists have documented the growing volume of plastic garbage floating in the oceans.  Now a young couple is taking a fresh look at the problem to see if something can be done to solve it. 

    Marcus Eriksen is not really fishing. He is catching plastic trash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of kilometers from the nearest land.

    Eriksen is on a global expedition to document and publicize the growing accumulation of plastic trash in our oceans, and to study its effects on marine and human life.

    “These are the five sub-tropical gyres in the world where the majority of the plastic in the world accumulates,” he said.

    “The gyre is formed by ocean currents that couple with the spinning of the earth's rotation.  And what happens is that you have, effectively, a massive whirlpool, a large spinning system, where debris can accumulate,” said Anna Cummins, who along with her husband Marcus Eriksen, is a co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, a California-based non-profit organization that promotes research into plastic pollution in the oceans.  

    Cummins says that in less than 100 years, we have replaced most  of our re-usable products and natural materials with plastics that are used just briefly.  At the end of their short use cycle, plastic bags or bottles have little intrinsic value; the large majority end up in solid-waste landfills or as litter in creeks and rivers.  A lot of this waste also washes out to sea, where it enters swirling ocean currents and over time, travels thousands of kilometers.  

    “This becomes a problem in the marine environment because plastics are designed to last forever," Cummins said.  "They don’t break down, they can’t be digested by marine organisms and they persist in the ocean for thousands of years.”

    In their journeys across the world’s oceans, Eriksen and Cummins have been trawling the top 20 centimeters of the water's surface with a fine mesh net.  Hundreds of samples of the debris they've collected are now being analyzed in a California lab.

    “What shocked me the most on all these trips is to cross an ocean for thousands and thousands of miles and find that every single sample we pull up has plastics,” Cummins said.

    Some plastics in the ocean stay in large pieces for a long time.  But many break into smaller particles.  

    Plastic Trash in Oceans Enters Marine Food Chain
    Plastic Trash in Oceans Enters Marine Food Chain

    “The plastic out there is not a condensed island of trash, [it] is really spread out," Eriksen said. "[It] is a plastic soup, from continent to continent.”

    Animals mistakenly eat the smaller pieces of plastic, or feed them to their young.  Hundreds of sea birds, fish and turtles die every year from consuming this toxic trash.  

    “Roughly 43 percent of all marine mammals, 86 percent of all sea turtle and 44 percent of sea bird species are found with plastics in or around their bodies,” Cummins said  “Thirty-five percent of the samples of fish that we collected in the north Pacific had plastic in their stomachs.”

    5-Gyres Institute and its research partners are now documenting the way plastics are entering the ocean food chain and studying their possible impact on human health.

    “I had a chance to do what's called a 'body burden analysis' on my own blood," Anna Cummins said. "We looked into my blood serum to find, do I have the same chemicals that we know stick to plastic.  And we found in my blood trace levels of PCBs [Polychlorinated biphenyls - a man-made organic chemical], DDT [dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane - a synthetic pesticide], PFCs [Perfluorocarbons - linked to infertility] and high levels of flame retardant.  We don’t know how these chemicals entered my body. As a woman I know that these chemicals in my body will pass on to the next generation.”

    As part of their effort to raise public awareness of the plastic trash problem, Marcus Eriksen and his partners built an ocean-going raft using 15,000 empty plastic soda bottles. They named the vessel "JUNKraft," and in 2008, they set sail from California to Hawaii - traveling right through the North Pacific Gyre.

    “The North Pacific Gyre is surprising," Eriksen said. "If you go only 1,000 miles [1,609 Km] off the coast of California, which is 7,000 [11,265 km] miles from Japan, you still get a lot of Japanese and Chinese plastic because of [the] currents.”

    Eriksen and Cummins recognize that cleansing the seas of plastic would be nearly impossible, since oceans cover two thirds of the planet.  That plastic trash will be with us for a long time, they concede. But there are other solutions.

    “The solutions do not begin in the ocean, they begin on land,” Eriksen said.

    “We need to improve our recycling infrastructure" said Cummins.  "Here in the U.S. we only recover and recycle rougly five percent of our plastics.”

    Besides more plastic recycling, the husband and wife team advocates the wider use of biodegradable materials and the re-design of products so they are more fully recyclable.  They also believe people around the world need to become more aware of plastic trash and its serious environmental and health impact.

    In March, Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen will begin the last of their ocean expeditions, this time sailing through the South Pacific Gyre.  On their return, the two activists plan to share their research findings with the scientific community and to publish a book about their ocean experiences.

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movementi
    X
    July 22, 2016 11:49 AM
    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.
    Video

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.
    Video

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora