Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography are surprised by the sheer amount of plastic they’re uncovering in hundreds of samples they hauled back from the North Pacific Ocean last August.
A team of graduate students sailed a thousand miles west of California to a rarely-traveled but much-hyped area called the North Pacific Gyre — a continent-sized, slowly swirling stretch of water where oceanic currents have deposited tons of plastic trash. The Scripps team set out to find how much debris is really there and whether it’s having a major impact on marine life.
Scripps is the first major scientific institution to study the large accumulation of plastic, dubbed the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” in the becalmed waters of the North Pacific. The Long Beach-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation introduced it to the public a decade ago, with photos of an albatross carcass littered with bottle caps and tangles of fishing tackle, bath toys, bags and jugs.
Now, with the Scripps study, the emphasis is on tiny bits of plastics, about the size of a grain of rice — but potentially toxic to smaller organisms. While the researchers found plenty of large pieces, they’re more concerned with the confetti-like shards broken down by sun and waves over many years.
Chief scientist Miriam Goldstein put it this way from her UCSD lab, while holding two jars filled with jagged bits of blue, green, yellow and pink: “Scientists are floored when I show them these samples. Regular people are usually not very impressed because they’re like ‘Where are our islands of trash?’ This is a huge amount of plastic to get in a manta tow [net].”
In 100 years of sampling the world’s oceans, previous Scripps researchers never found so much plastic. Goldstein can’t quantify it yet, since they’re still sorting through jars of zooplankton, crustaceans and fish.