Another Garbage Patch

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Ocean plastic pollution has been accumulating in the most unlikely of places, including remote regions of the Arctic, and recent estimates suggest that particles of “microplastic”–pieces of plastic smaller than 5 mm in diameter–have increased by more than 100 times since the early 1970s. Last week, a study published in the online journal Marine Pollution Bulletin reported the latest discovery of ocean plastic, found off the coast of Chile by a 5 Gyres Institute expedition. The 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit group that embarks on research expeditions to spread the word about the impact of plastic pollution, named the mass of ocean plastic the “South Pacific Garbage Patch” to join the ranks of their previously researched Great Pacific Garbage Patch and North Atlantic Garbage Patch.

“Without a doubt, we have discovered a previously unknown garbage patch in the South Pacific Subtropical Gyre,” Marcus Eriksen, Ph.D., executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute, said in a press release.

Eriksen and his team began collecting the first-ever samples of the ocean surface near Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile, in March 2011. Samples were collected every 50 nautical miles westward to Easter Island, then onward to Pitcairn Island, totaling 48 samples along a 2,424 nautical mile straight-line transect. An average of 26,898 plastic particles per square kilometer was recorded, with a high of 396,342 particles per square kilometer in the center of the accumulation zone. According to 5 Gyres, this startling amount of plastic confirms the existence of yet another oceanic ‘garbage patch’ with “global implications for fisheries, tourism, marine ecosystems and human health.”

While the group plans to launch three expeditions to the North Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Great Lakes in 2013 to “provide additional insight to the scope of the problem worldwide,” they urge immediate personal commitments to halt future flow of plastics into the world’s oceans. Concerned citizens can take the 5 Gyres “Plastic Promise” to: bring their own water bottle, mug, utensils and reusable bag and say “No plastic straw please” when dining out. Other recommendations include buying products in the least amount of plastic packaging and picking up five pieces of plastic pollution whenever you’re out.

“Creating a balance between peer-reviewed science, education and advocacy is a delicate endeavor, but it’s our goal to see common sense policy based on objective, scientific fact, and to us, if our advocacy efforts are based on hard evidence, there exists no conflict of interest. Facts are facts,” said Anna Cummins, 5 Gyres co-founder.

In addition to preventative-based solutions to eliminate plastic particles in waterways, ground-breaking, innovative technologies are underway. Last year, in response to a challenge to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, French International School of Design students Elie Ahovi, Adrien Lefebvre, Philomene Lambaere, Marion Wipliez, Quentin Sorel and Benjamin Lemoal generated a concept known as the “Marine Drone.” Equipped with a sensor to ensure fish and other aquatic creatures keep away from it, the high-powered battery device can stay underwater for two weeks gathering plastic into its netted tube. When the Marine Drone’s net is full, it reports back to the docking station, where crews will then collect the plastic for recycling or even fuel conversion.