2013-06-20 / News

Local conservationist returns from 700-mile trip to ‘garbage patch’

Michael Brown learns how marine plastic pollution settles in world’s oceans
By Ken Shane

Conservation Commissioner Michael Brown aboard Sea Dragon during last year’s trip to the North Pacific Gyre. Brown returned last week from a similar mission. 
Photo courtesy of Michael brown Conservation Commissioner Michael Brown aboard Sea Dragon during last year’s trip to the North Pacific Gyre. Brown returned last week from a similar mission. Photo courtesy of Michael brown The presence of plastic in the world’s oceans is increasing, and one danger is that it will enter the food chain. Through the consumption of plastic particles by fish, humans become susceptible to the garbage themselves after consuming plastic-filled fish from markets or restaurants.

The environmental organization 5 Gyres has spent the last two years exploring the world’s five oceans in an effort to determine how much plastic is present. The goal of the group is to witness the decline in plastic pollution until it is no longer found in the oceans. 5 Gyres hopes to achieve its goal by raising awareness about the global impact of ocean plastic. The group also conducts research and employs strategies to eliminate the trash from the five subtropical gyres.

The oceans are dynamic systems made up of complex networks of currents that circulate water around the world. The currents gather in large systems. When blended with wind, it creates what is known as a “gyre”: a large, slowly rotating whirlpool that allows plastic trash to accumulate.

There are five major gyres in the world’s subtropical zones, and smaller ones in Alaska and Antarctica. The largest of these is the North Pacific Gyre – it’s about twice the size of the United States, though it changes in size and shape as a result of seasonal shifts.

According to 5 Gyres, about 44 percent of all seabirds, 22 percent of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), all sea turtles, and a growing number of fish have been found with plastic in and around their bodies. The consumption of trash by marine animals can lead to death as a result of internal blockages, dehydration and starvation.

Michael Brown has lived in Jamestown for 12 years and is a member of the town’s Conservation Commission. His business – 2.0 Packaging – is headquartered on the island and sells thermoformed plastic packaging made from recycled plastics. He makes a line of packaging that is made from 100 percent post-consumer waste. According to Brown, the source of the materials is through bin collections around the Northeast, including the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation.

“It’s an attempt to make a closed-loop sustainable packaging system,” he said.

Recently, Brown completed his second expedition with 5 Gyres, a seven-day expedition from Bermuda to Newport. In May 2012, Brown spent 22 days on the Pacific collecting data in the North Pacific Gyre.

He became acquainted with the organization in 2007 when he encountered them at a sustainablepackaging conference.

“They presented samples and did a presentation about what was going on in the big Pacific garbage patch,” Brown said. “People were just becoming aware of it. They said in front of 300 people that you couldn’t make new food packaging from old food packaging. Of course that’s what I was doing, so I stood up and engaged them. Then I became friends with them.”

Brown’s 2012 trip took him from the Marshall Islands to Tokyo. He said there were 14 strangers on the boat, a mix of scientists, activists and adventurers. They lived in close quarters aboard the 72-foot steel-hulled sailing vessel Sea Dragon. According to Brown, it got a bit uncomfortable because of the Pacific’s hot weather.

“The revelation was that there is no real island of trash,” Brown said. “It’s just areas where the current doesn’t circulate and plastic fragments that look like confetti exist in very high numbers mixed into the water. By the time the material makes it out there and sits in one of those gyres for a couple of years, it’s no longer recognizable.”

The purpose of the expeditions is to do manta trawls, where a net with a fine mesh is towed behind the boat. The collected fragments allow researchers to estimate the amount of plastic in a given area of water. Brown said the count in one gyre was nearly 1 million fragments per square mile. The number has been consistent in all of the gyres.

According to Brown, he learned last year that 22 days was too much time for him to be on the water. However, when a spot opened up on the recent seven-day trip, he signed up. He was once again aboard the Sea Dragon, and the boat encountered some difficult weather conditions along the way.

“We had two or three days of nice sunny weather and good conditions for collecting,” Brown said.

But then the weather took a turn for the worse around the Gulf Stream. “We had winds of 30 to 35 mph. It was pretty rough for two days. A third of the people aboard were seasick almost all of the time.”

5 Gyres recognizes that a cleanup of the polluted areas is not feasible due to their size. Instead, members of the group hope they can at least stop it from getting worse.

“When you take a sample you have a mixture of natural organisms and plastic, you can’t separate it.” Brown said. “We’d probably cause more harm trying to clean it up.”

According to Brown, 5 Gyres is looking to document the problem with irrefutable evidence so the scientific community will accept its findings. The group wants to remove any sensationalism from the situation, and then take the information to industries and consumers and look for solutions.

One solution, Brown said, would be an increased recycling rate. The United States only has a 30 percent recycling rate on polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic commonly found in soda and water bottles. There are parts of the world where the recycling rate is well over 50 percent, and as high as 80 percent in some countries.

“My stated goal is that we need to double the recycling rate in the United States,” said Brown. “60 percent or higher.”

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