The last time I was in a plastic accumulation zone – one of the ocean’s five gyres where the world’s waste collects – I was met by clear blue waters.
I was in the North Pacific, skippering an all-female crew, for the latest in a series of eXXpedition voyages. We’d been battling the weather for a week, feeling the full brunt of the ocean, and had finally arrived at the heart of the gyre. Plastic pieces bobbed alongside the boat, but we saw nothing like the swirling rafts of garbage we’d been led to imagine.
I have spent a decade at sea trying to understand the plastic pollution problem, and I’ve learned repeatedly that things are never as they appear on the surface. That day, we lowered our manta trawl into the water and analysed our samples. We discovered that each sample contained hundreds of miniscule plastic fragments, invisible from where we’d been standing.
We watched albatross dive into the ocean, swooping for food we knew would be indistinguishable from plastic. It became unbearable.
Lifting our gaze from the onboard microscope and looking back out to sea, we suddenly saw the reality – a dense soup of tiny plastic pieces, also known as microplastics, for miles around. It changed everything. We watched albatross dive into the ocean, swooping for food we knew would be indistinguishable from plastic. It became unbearable.
Those moments make it impossible to ignore the impact plastic is having, in many and complex ways. Tiny plastic pieces, broken down by sun, wind and water, have become totally enmeshed with marine biology. Recent global studies estimate that eight million tons enter the ocean every year, and data collected at sea combined with oceanic current models help us estimate that a quarter of a million tons of plastic are floating on the ocean’s surface.
So, where is the rest going? Some of it, we’ve discovered, has been slipping through our nets and trawls, microscopically small. Some of it is eaten. Most of it, we’re learning now, is sinking. Either invisible to the naked eye, absorbed into the food chain, or at the bottom of the ocean, vast amounts of plastic wind up out of sight and mind – leaving us with no transparency, traceability, or ownership of the problem.
Those blue waters in the North Pacific showed us the practical impossibilities of comprehensive plastic cleanup, and the importance of stopping the problem where it starts. It’s not too late.
We’ve been treating the ocean like a sink, letting it take on all our pollution and carbon dioxide. However, as we’ve seen with the corals that have bounced back after reef bleaching events, if the ocean is left alone, it can recover. If we stop plastic going into the ocean, I believe we have the power to see its health return. But we have to turn off the tap at the source, and we have to do it now.
It is for this reason that the next eXXpedition voyage will be shifting heavily towards solutions-based science, and focussing attention back onto dry land. On October 8th, 2019, we set off on our most ambitious mission yet: eXXpedition Round the World – two years, 30 voyage legs, 38,000 nautical miles 300 new crew members.
Contributing to world class scientific studies in partnership with the University of Plymouth, we’ll be not only recording, but analysing the plastic we find to deduce key industry sources and global origins. Simultaneously, we are embarking on a shore-based circularity assessment protocol with the University of Georgia, as we move to work out which type of waste is being mis-managed on land and making its way to the ocean. We’ll use our findings to target policy change, armed with evidence to inform the most effective solutions.
Building an army
In one unbroken journey, with an international crew from a broad range of professional backgrounds, we will circumnavigate Earth and get a snapshot of the current global situation and the connectivity between marine conservation issues.
We can only start to solve a problem once we understand it. With each trip, we’re building an army of 300 ambassadors who’ve seen, grasped, and can explain the problem first-hand. These ambassadors will take their experiences back onto dry land and into their own sphere of influence, where the real change will happen.
Just as we can’t completely separate plastic from plankton, we can’t separate plastic pollution from other global issues, or isolate a single cause, culprit or policy at the heart of the problem. A multi-faceted global issue calls for a multi-faceted global response. We have to fight on all fronts, from personal habit through to policy, to stop plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place.
It’s daunting, but it also means that everyone can rise to the challenge in some way. It’s not an evil conspiracy that has brought us here. Rather, billions of micro actions have brought us to this point. If micro-actions have got us here, it’s micro-actions that will get us out. You don’t have to be joining us aboard to be able to start right now.
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