Pacific's worst pollution barely visible to the eye

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On the shores of Vashon Island, southwest of Seattle, the beach looks idyllic. Gulls cry. The tide washes in sand dollars with every step. But pick up a piece of driftwood, and you'll find a something common to coastlines all over the world: plastic.

On this day, a volunteer crew from Puget Soundkeeper Alliance is here to pick up marine debris. Their work is part of the 30th anniversary of International Coastal Cleanup, a month-long annual effort led by the Ocean Conservancy. By day's end, they’ll have picked up some 440 pounds of debris.

But such efforts, a product of the environmental movement’s early days, have not come close to keeping up with the problem of plastic in oceans. With a patch of plastic in the Pacific roughly the size of Texas, and parts of the ocean that contain more of the material than plankton, mankind is confronting a pollution problem that will take creativity to slow down, let alone fix.

And in Washington, legislation to help fight the problem of microplastics – which may make up 92 percent of plastic pollution – have stalled as industry and environmentalists clash over their specifics.

Captain Charlie Moore is an independent voyager and researcher renowned for his work in the eastern North Pacific Gyre, an area thick with floating plastic debris. Since 1999, Moore and his team have logged 15 voyages to the area known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” A more accurate definition of it is “Great Pacific Plastic Soup,” he says. Plastic, large and near microscopic alike, permeates the water column from ocean floor to the surface.

And the problem is getting much worse, he says. On his most recent voyage in 2014, Moore and team set up nets at 11 stations in the North Pacific, as they'd done on previous voyages. “Our nets were so full of plastic they filled up in a half an hour”, he says, filled with computer parts, food containers, and more. The called the huge increase in plastic over the last three years “startling even to me.”

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University of Washington researcher Joel Baker.

Plastic is a persistent molecule, easy to fracture but impossible to break. Even though it will almost liquefy into tiny beads as it's exposed to currants and sun, he says, “the bits don't go away.”

The Center for Urban Waters at the University of Washington has been surveying the amount of micro-plastics and types of plastic in Puget Sound for years. The center's lead researcher Joel Baker says they’ve been asked to identify the impact of plastic on Puget Sound waters, compared to chemical loads, bacteria and other pathogens from storm and wastewater.

Baker says it’s an “urban myth that there's more plastic than plankton in the (entire) ocean.” While it’s true in certain of the world’s waters, it is not true of the Puget Sound. Nonetheless, microplastics and plankton are the subject of a new study Baker just submitted to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in collaboration with fellow UW researcher Miriam Doyle.

Studying plankton samples in the Gulf of Alaska, they used nets with a mesh with holes only 330 microns to a side – totaling a third of a millimeter. “It's barely observable to the naked eye,” says Baker. “If you have a piece of brightly colored plastic of that size, like a petrie dish, you could see it without a microscope, but just barely, it's pretty small.”

According to oceanographers Kim Martini and Miriam Goldstein, the vast majority of plastic in the ocean is made up of particles one centimeter and smaller, remnants of larger pieces broken up by ultraviolet light, the corrosive effects of seawater, and physical abuse from wave action and marine creatures. Some research estimates as much as 92 percent of ocean plastics fall into this category.

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Microplastic found in Maryland's Patapsco River.

In the United States, some of the most significant headway in curbing or eliminating these materials in the ocean has been achieved through campaigns against micro-beads, those grain-of-sand-size plastics used in personal care products.

In the last few years, 24 states have enacted or proposed legislation to either phase out or ban the use of certain types of micro-beads. But according to Stiv Wilson with anti-pollution group Story of Stuff, industry pressure left loopholes in the bills “for so-called bio-degradable plastic.”

“Nobody knows what that means,” says Wilson. “Does it mean the micro-beads will biodegrade in two weeks, two years or two millenniums? Everything on earth is biodegradable on a geologic time frame.”

Legislation with this loophole was proposed in Washington state last session, which conservationists opposed over its inclusion of the term “biodegradable plastic.” Bruce Wishart of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance says it renders the legislation toothless.

“The conservation community does not recognize ‘biodegradable plastics’ when leading studies by scientists, including those in the state of California, have shown it doesn't break down in marine waters,” Wishart says.

Three states, California, Connecticut and Maryland, have passed comprehensive bills to ban microbeads on the market by 2020. California's bill passed just last week.  At the federal level, US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York introduced the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 in late July. The legislation would federally ban cosmetics containing synthetic plastic microbeads.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.