Photo: Nick Mallos
Words of lost hope and unsolvable problems have been circulating the past few days in response to an article highlighting Ivan Macfadyen’s sail from Melbourne to Osaka. In the article, this long-time sailor describes the waters of his Pacific crossing as desolate and without life, “… for 3,000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.” Macfadyen goes on to describe in detail that in place of the missing life were abhorrent sights and volumes of garbage.
Reactions on social media have included words such as sad, scary and heartbreaking. But most of all, I’m concerned about posts like this one:
It is clear that our ocean is facing unprecedented times and growing environmental challenges. In many places, we’re treating rivers and coastal waters like refuse pits for our unwanted waste. We are catching too many fish, and we are putting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it is finding its way into the ocean with troubling consequences. However, I’m not yet ready to throw in the towel, and it troubles me that this article leaves people feeling hopeless. We know that if people are left with despair, they have little motivation to work toward solutions.
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Plastic doesn't just disappear; it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Scientists are just starting to understand the impacts fragmented plastics have on our ocean. Photo credit: NOAA
A “gigantic floating island of trash.” The media has been full of stories about an ocean drowning in plastic for years. It’s great that public awareness about ocean trash has skyrocketed, but awareness built on fundamental misconceptions won’t lead to durable, long term solutions—particularly with respect to plastics. What we need now is rigorous scientific analysis of both the scope of the problem and the best ways to solve it.
I’ve been to—and sailed through—the North Pacific Gyre and the reality is that there is no huge, floating island of trash twice the size of Texas – instead, large areas of the Pacific are a sort of trash soup containing lots of small bits of plastic. And I mean LOTS. Of course to most, the size or viscosity of the trash in the ocean misses the point. Trash shouldn’t be in the ocean; it’s a problem we can and should collectively solve.
But as a scientist, I know that compared to other areas of ocean research, the science of marine debris is still in its infancy and evolving quickly. Continue reading »