Microplastic in Atlantic: Great garbage patch

Microplastics are all so pervasive that our bodies have turned into a great garbage patch

By Bharati Chaturvedi
Published: Wednesday 22 May 2019

I am in the middle of the famous Atlantic Ocean plastic patch. We’ve often heard and even read that this plastic patch was first discovered when the legendary Captain Moore sailed out and bumped into a warty clump of white as far as his eye could see.

This white was our assorted plastic, gathered in the middle of the ocean thanks to the currents that brought it all here. Captain Moore was shocked to see this landfill in the ocean. The rest is history.

Well, although I am in the middle of the garbage patch, I see only the beautiful waters. It looks straight out from an advertisement for Bermuda — the closest piece of land. So what happened to the patch of plastic waste? Fact is it was never seen, because it never existed.

“I prefer to think of it as plastic smog, sprayed across the oceans. Not a patch. You will never see a patch like that,” said Marcus Ericson, founder of 5 Gyres.

It’s not that organisations like 5 Gyres don’t find any intact plastics. They do. “About 75 per cent of what we find is nets and fishing gear-stuff that’s built to last in the waters. And those buoy balls are very thick,” added Marcus.

Three factors break down what we throw away in the rivers and the coasts — sunlight, UV rays and mechanical forces — that beat the plastic down. The forces — fishes, turtles and ocean waves — are quite unexpected. Often, sea creatures take small bites out of plastics and eat them, slowly breaking them down. So in essence, a plastic might break down as it is eaten up.

With microplastics each tiny piece can be quite different from another. This helps identify their origin. Pellet-shape means they've been washed out from industrial usage, typically a factory that might have imported pellets to mould into new applications. As they wash the floors and dispose of trash, pellets get into drains, rivers, seas.

Filaments suggests they might have been rope or net. Fibres could be clothing like fleece or any of the synthetic stuff we wear. Uneven pieces could be broken down buckets or containers or any other moulded consumer item. Perfect spheres could be micro-beads, used in cosmetics.

We hear time and again that 80 per cent of the ocean plastic comes from land, and that rivers in Asia carry most of the riverine plastics. In other words, the five garbage patches in the world exist due to the rivers of the developing world.

This is still not the full story, I learn. Marcus spent an hour trawling New York City’s Hudson river, and found the same amount of plastics as the sum of 37 hours of trawls before. Tampons and earbuds were just some of these — they had been flushed down NYC toilets.

Given than the city is old, its sewage system is not build to prevent these plastics from entering the river. Consequently, they too, enter the Atlantic Ocean and then, back into our food and water.

If plastic is so rapidly degraded, shall we believe the video of a turtle with a piece of straw in its nostril as true? The short answer is: we should. It can happen, along beaches. In fact, you’d find recognisable or even intact plastic brought back by ocean tides onto beaches.

This is possible because some of the waste from river mouths and beaches doesn’t travel far before it’s brought back by the high tide. Sometimes, other waste also comes in with it.

Forget size, the truth is this — anything that reaches the seas will forever be in it, in some size or the other. Marcus tells me that 97 per cent of the fishing boats from the Japanese Tsunami were recovered in places like Hawaii.

He himself saw a small boat off Los Angeles one day as he was sailing. It stood perpendicular to the waters, clearly drowning. It was one of the lost Japanese ships. Marcus was worried about ship wrecks that trap plastic debris when it sinks and then, deep-sea creatures eat it up.

“It’s everywhere,” he laments. But deep inside the oceans, plastics are far more dangerous precisely because of their size. I know that from this expedition. I know plastics destroy the lower level food chain by disrupting the metabolism of mussels and other smaller creatures.

Sometimes, they move up the food chain and accumulate in the eco-system, finally eaten up by us. Who doesn't remember the IIT Bhubaneshwar study which found micro-plastics in sea salt? Fact is: microplastics are all so pervasive that each of our bodies has turned into a great garbage patch.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :
Related Stories

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.