Following plastic debris from the ocean onto our plates

The 5 Gyres project studies ocean pollution -- and the group hopes to answer questions about what so much plastic in the surf means for the food on our plates.

When we dip our toes into the ocean, it's sometimes hard to tell what else is in the water. Researchers know we're sharing the waves with plastic debris and other trash.

The 5 Gyres project studies that pollution -- and the group hopes to answer questions about what so much plastic in the ocean means for the food on our plates. Anna Cummins, the group's co-founder, answered my questions this week.

What are the 5 gyres and why do we need to know about them?

An oceanic gyre is a slow rotating system of currents -- massive marine eddies created by wind patterns and the Earth's rotational forces. Oceanic gyres have come to the public attention due to their ability to transport and accumulate marine debris. In the last decade, Captain [Charles] Moore and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation have documented an alarming amount of plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre, between California and Hawaii. Plastic trash that washes from land in the Pacific Rim countries gets swept up in the gyre's currents, breaking down into smaller pieces through photodegradation. Plastic debris can harm marine wildlife through entanglement or ingestion. Current research focuses on the potential human health impacts of this plastic trash, as plastic particles laden with toxic chemicals are eaten by fish, and enter the food chain.

Many have now heard of plastic trash in the North Pacific, due to more media about the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch." Few realize that there are five subtropical gyres in the world -- the North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Little is known about plastic pollution in the four other gyres. To address this, our project is conducting research on these lesser known gyres, bringing the issue of plastic pollution to a global audience.

What research does your team do?

We research the accumulation of plastic pollution in the world's oceans. This year, we completed two research expeditions across the North Atlantic and Indian Ocean gyres, collecting samples of the ocean's surface. Our research partner analyzes our samples in a lab, measuring the weight and the type of plastic collected, as well as dissecting small fish to study potential plastic ingestion. We have eight expeditions planned for 2010 and 2011, to the South Atlantic and South Pacific gyres. We will collect surface samples to study plastic accumulation, and fish to study potential biochemical impacts. The question being asked by the public now: are fish that eat plastic particles also absorbing chemicals from this plastic into their tissue? If so, are these chemicals working their way up the food chain? We hope to explore this question further.

Who works on the project?

Our team is made up of scientists, journalists, educators and filmmakers. We offer space to interested crew representing many different public sectors. It is important to have both scientists and non-scientists involved to ensure that our message gets out to a wide audience.

Why is this work important?

We have now crossed three oceans -- the North Pacific, North Atlantic and Indian Ocean -- and we've seen plastic pollution in all three. Plastics have been around for less than 100 years, yet we now find them covering shorelines and ocean surfaces around the world. Far from being simply an aesthetic issue, this plastic pollution poses threats to marine wildlife that ingest or become entangled in plastic. And we're now finding plastic in fish that humans eat. We must begin addressing this issue on land, by changing the way we use and dispose of plastics.

What's the goal of the project?

Our goal is to reach a much wider audience with our research, bringing the issue of plastic pollution to international attention and continuing to explore the unknown questions about plastic debris: what is the ultimate fate of plastic debris?  What is the density of plastic pollution in the other gyres? And are pollutants from plastic entering the food chain through foraging fish?  With our research, we also hope to encourage changes in the way we produce, manufacture, consume and recycle our plastics. Once we collect our data, we will conduct a cycling and speaking tour across the East Coast and Europe.

What challenges do you face?

Research expeditions are expensive, and finding funding for research can be difficult. Another challenge is coming up with realistic, immediate solutions to the plastic pollution issue. Changing policies that govern the way we make and use plastics will take time and public involvement. We also need to work on improving waste infrastructures of many less developed countries. Many countries are not yet equipped to deal with plastics effectively -- so plastic trash is often burned or tossed. Finally, a big picture challenge in developed countries is shifting from our throwaway, consumer culture. In addition to changing the material, and recyclability of plastic, we need to consume less "stuff" altogether.

What's next for the project?

This coming November/December, we'll cross the North Atlantic gyre, from Rio De Janeiro to Cape Town, South Africa, and back. Then in March, we'll cross the South Pacific gyre, from Valdivia, Chile, to Easter Island and onto Tahiti, ending up in the North Pacific gyre in Hawaii. We're currently planning these expeditions with our partner Pangaea Explorations. By this time next year, we will have data from all 5 gyres.

Image: Anna Cummins with 5 Gyres co-founder Marcus Eriksen

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com