Plastic found polluting the Atlantic Ocean

The myth persists: a plastic garbage patch the size of Texas is fouling the Pacific Ocean. In fact, the scope of the problem is far bigger, according to researchers who have now found plastic pollution in four vast ocean regions called gyres. The researchers are with 5 Gyres Institute, whose crew completed a voyage from Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town, South Africa during which they found prolific amounts of plastic pollution on the world’s first such sail across the Southern Atlantic.

“We have confirmed our suspicion that plastic marine pollution is a global issue, and not confined to the Northern Hemisphere,” said Mar­cus Eriksen, Ph.D., co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute. The 5 Gyres crew, along with their collaborators at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF), have previously discovered plastic pollution in the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Indian Ocean.

Sailing 4,100 miles in one month, 5 Gyres researchers collected 67 samples from the ocean’s surface. “Every sample contained small fragments of plastic,” said Anna Cummins, 5 Gyres co-founder. And, as the crew neared the Southern Atlantic gyre, a vortex where the detritus accumulates, “we counted hundreds of large floating objects, including fishing buoys, nets, buckets, crates, water bottles and construction hard hats.”

The problem elicits public outcry to clean up the mess, but these researchers point out that there are no well-defined plastic patches or islands to gather, and that the fragmented plastic pollution is distributed globally.

“The garbage patches we discover are highly diffuse, perhaps a little more than a handful of plastic particles scattered over a football field,” Eriksen says. “But there are 315 million-square kilometers of ocean surface in the world, so there are billions of these football fields. Do the math, the product is staggering. Practical solutions begin on land with improved recovery systems and better product stewardship where producers factor in the true environmental cost of their products.”

Crew member Chelsea Rochman, a UC Davis Ph.D student, will analyze more than 80 fish collected on the voyage for the presence of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) to investigate whether humans are being harmed by eating fish that have ingested plastic debris contaminated with these pollutants.

In 2011, the 5 Gyres Institute will investigate plastic marine pollution in the South Pacific Gyre, another subtropical gyre unstudied to date.