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Our Plastic Ocean

The world’s oceans are overflowing with plastic. Every year, around eight millions tons of plastic is unceremoniously dumped into our oceans (Lauren Parker, National Geographic, 2015). Plastic is an everyday part of life on earth, and I challenge you to spend a day where you don’t encounter it. It’s in our face washes and our...

The world’s oceans are overflowing with plastic. Every year, around eight millions tons of plastic is unceremoniously dumped into our oceans (Lauren Parker, National Geographic, 2015). Plastic is an everyday part of life on earth, and I challenge you to spend a day where you don’t encounter it. It’s in our face washes and our utensils, we wrap it around the food we eat; and it is now one of the most common pollutants of ocean waters worldwide. Corralled by winds, tides and currents, plastic particles converge with other trash in our oceans to form large swirling accumulation zones or ‘garbage patches’. These zones are known to Oceanographers as gyres, and together, they comprise as much as 40 percent of the planet’s ocean surface — roughly 25 percent of the entire earth. For a size comparison, that’s about the size of the continents of Africa and Australia combined.

Tackling the removal of these patches is a formidable challenge, the largest of which is located in the Pacific Ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it is known, is often said to be twice the size of Texas. NOAA has estimated that cleaning up a mere less than one percent of the North Pacific patch, would take at least 68 ships working 10 hours straight each day, for a year. (Lauren Parker, National Geographic, 2013). Artist and scientist Bonnie Monteleone, along with her team at the Plastic Ocean Project, have decided to take on this daunting challenge by innovating ways to “mine” for plastics of all sizes, and encouraging public outreach through art.

Sea anemones colonize a shard of plastic found in the Pacific Garbage Patch

The Plastic Ocean Project has worked to bring awareness to the growing pandemic of marine plastics across the country by turning it into art and leaving it on display at public venues. Ms. Monteleone has collected digital images of plastic artifacts retrieved from four of the five global garbage patches, and has combined them with her own open ocean photography in a traveling art display. This display has since traveled 3,700 miles, on a journey to portray how the world’s oceans have been scourged by plastics. People are encouraged not only to enjoy the beauty of the art, but to look deeper and question our own contribution of plastics into our oceans, and to make the connection that this growing problem is a global one that affects us all.

"Plastic Ocean" by: Bonnie Monteleone; Dedicated to Charlie Moore and his book Plastic Ocean
“Plastic Ocean” by: Bonnie Monteleone; Dedicated to Charlie Moore and his book Plastic Ocean

Looking ahead, the Plastic Ocean Project is in the planning stages of their next expedition,”Swimming the Big Blue”, where they will join Ben Hooper in his attempt to swim from Africa to Brazil, during which the Plastic Ocean Project will follow along collecting a variety of marine samples influenced by anthropogenic forces. This expedition is a unique opportunity, as very little work has been done in sampling plastics across the equatorial currents.

Plastic in our oceans is a global problem, wether you live by the ocean or live on a farm in the middle of South Dakota. The largest slabs of plastic found in these marine gyres are quite obvious, and clear sources of man’s impact on our seas. However it is the smallest pieces, those not seen by the naked eye, that may pose the greatest threat. These minute ‘micro-plastics’ are often mistaken as food for many fish species, and it is these same fish that may end up on your dinner plate tonight, no matter where you live.

In the end, our most pressing challenge will be to combat the public ethos that our oceans are boundless with resources, and bottomless receptacles for our waste. The world has thrived on an economic model that promotes wasteful products and packaging, and leaves the associated problems of clean-up costs open and unanswered. However, through organizations like the Plastic Ocean Project; who’s unique use of art displays both the beauty of our oceans and the sinister creep of plastic within them, there may yet be hopeful resolution for the global anthropogenic attack on our seas.

To learn more about the Plastic Ocean Project visit: http://www.plasticoceanproject.org/#/

To join Ben Hooper in his epic swim from Africa to Brazil visit: http://www.swimthebigblue.com/

Moore, Charles J., “Choking the Oceans with Plastic”. 2014. The Opinion Pages. The New York Times.

Parker, Lauren, “Eight Million Tons of Plastic Dumped in Ocean Every Year”. National Geographic. February, 2015.

Parker, Lauren, “With Millions of Tons of Plastic in Oceans, More Scientists Studying Impact”. National Geographic. June, 2013.

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Meet the Author

Emily Callahan
Emily is an oceanographer, explorer and marine environmental scientist. In 2011 she worked in the Gulf of Mexico on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Her work in the Gulf analyzing the oil spill, and the development of the oil and gas industry sparked her research interest in the Rigs-to-Reefs program. Emily has a masters in marine biodiversity and conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and is currently a marine scientist for an environmental consulting group and managing partner and explorer at Rig2Reef Exploration