Tuesday, February 9, 2010

More answers to your great questions!!!

Hi Everyone, Marcus here:

Spirits are high since the wind calmed down to 20 knots. You wouldn't believe how the last few days of 35-45 knot winds create mountains of water that lift our 45 ton boat as if it were a toy. You're reminded of how little you are in the world. But when we trawl for plastic, we find that collectively we can change the planet.

Answers to Student Questions
Q: Hi from Palos Verdes High in Palos Verdes Estates California. We are enjoying the blog, and are looking forward to hearing about the trigger fish and the plastic bottle and seeing more pictures. We would like to know how you plan to use the data you collect. Will your data be published somewhere? If so, where? Also, what is the most unusual organism or scenario you have encountered on these research trips. Thank you, the students at PVHS

A: Palos Verdes High asked about how we'll use our data and what is the most unusual organism or scenario we've encountered. Well, we do plan to publish our data. Our samples have shown that there is plastic everywhere we look in the North Atlantic Gyre, also known as the Sargasso Sea. It looks just like the plastic pollution we find in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but without as much fishing gear, like nets, floats and line. Right now some of our samples are being analyzed in Long Beach, CA. When we were in Bermuda, we mailed 20 samples back to the Algalita lab.

What is the most unusual organism or scenario? The bioluminescence is certainly beautiful. Many kinds of zooplankton create a greenish glow when agitated by waves or scuba divers. I remember once scuba diving in the mid-Pacific at night. Each time I would wave my hands in front of my face a greenish trail of light would fly off my fingertips. It was so amazing I starting laughing.

Yesterday we saw something amazing, besides the 40 foot mountains of water that gently rolled under our boat. Three dolphins suddenly appeared at out bow, and one was a juvenile only 3 feet long. It jumped completely out of the water a few times.

Q: Santa Monica High School Santa Monica, California11th grade, Kou from Team Marine If you find the high level of plastics in all of your trawls that you are expecting, how do you plan to use your research to influence the single use plastics industries?

A: The students of Team Marine at Santa Monica High School asked about how our data will be used to influence legislation to curb the use of single use plastics. It's a fine line between science and public policy. We'll analyze our samples from the Atlantic Ocean to get the data, but it's up to people like you, the students of Team Marine, to take the fact of plastic pollution in the North Pacific Gyre and North Atlantic Gyre and put it to good use for society. I know that Team Marine has done so in Santa Monica. With your teacher, Mr. Ben Kay, at the helm, I'm sure you'll make a powerful impact in Santa Monica.

But what can we do as scientists toward changing public policy? We are often called upon to testify to city councils about our findings. We often give presentations to schools and public venues about the issue of plastic pollution. It's important to provide accurate information to law makers. But in almost every conversation about this issue, we are asked about solutions. When we give our answer, it's very important that we separate fact from opinion. We give the facts about the accumulation of plastic pollution in the world's gyres, as well as the impact on marine ecosystems. Our opinions are separate.

It is clear that recycling of post-consumer plastic in the United States accounts for very little of the total plastic manufactured. Most manufactures would rather buy virgin plastic pellets "nurdles" from new petroleum, rather than deal with post-consumer waste. It's simply cheaper. In fact, we've visited three recycling centers in California. Each of them ship their plastic waste to China, because no one in the US wants it. So, what do we do about it our consumption of plastic?

1. End the "Age of Throw Away Plastic." It makes no sense that we are using a man-made material that's designed to last forever, to make products that are designed to be thrown away.

2. Improve recovery off all other plastic materials. This can be accomplished through Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which puts an economic value to things you own that break or become obsolescence. It's like a deposit on a product that you get back when you return it. The other way to improve recovery is to give plastic a post-consumer value per pound, like we do for most metals. Imagine if mixed plastic waste was worth a buck a pound at the recovery center. I doubt you would see plastic on beaches, roadsides or stuck in trees. People would be motivated to go get it.

These are my opinions. The science stands independent of these solutions.

Q: Hi, This is Clay from East Hills 4H. Would the prevalence of hurricanes in the Atlantic (vs. the Pacific) alter the overall way plastic is distributed in that Gyre? You wrote earlier that it would put the plastic deeper and out of trawl distance but would it also cause the plastic to spread out more?

A: Hi Clay, Thanks for your question. There are 5 sub-tropical gyres in the world, and each has an accumulation zone driven by currents and the high pressure systems that sit over them. The South Pacific Gyre seems to be the one with the most stable high pressure system and a tight whorl of currents. Second is the North Pacific Gyre. The North Atlantic Gyre comes in 4th place in terms of having one homogeneous accumulation zone. That's because of the low pressure systems that come up from the Caribbean, or eastward from North America, that push the highs around. In short, the center of the North Atlantic Gyre is not well defined, so the plastic pollution is more dispersed. We'll know more when we analyze the samples we're collecting.

We observed something very interesting the other day. After a night on no wind, the seas became really calm, so we trawled. There were over 30 small pieces of monofilament line in the sample, compared to the two or three we usually find. It seems that fishing line is so close to the density of seawater that it doesn't take much wave action to push it downward. We noticed the same thing happening to hard fragments of plastic when the waves were really high. It seems that a higher sea state causes micro-plastics of all kinds to be stirred below the surface. For this reason we've had to trawl primarily when the seas were a meter high or less.

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