By: Matt Rutherford On: June 2, 2014 In: Education, STEM Education Comments: 2

Angry birds, is not just an amusing game APP on your smartphone but an everyday observation I have made on all 38 days sailing across the Pacific. The birds I referring to are alive and soar around the Sakura not on an electronic device. Maybe these birds are more hungry than angry but I do know they eat what is near or adrift on top of sea surface including plastic debris which can’t be very tasty making for a toxic treat.

Man they are chatty, they certainly do not mind startling you with an unexpected high speed clumsy landing after their long day of fishing, and they prefer their bird food to our sailor slop so in spite of if they have an empty belly or not they leave smelly splattered surprises in the morning on everything. Armed with a scrub brush and a bucket in hand, my conclusion is that these are hangry birds both hungry and angry.

Already past 180 degree west, the International Dateline and into the Eastern Hemisphere we have already sailed across 65% of the Pacific Ocean. As you have reported, plastic also has come a long way in more ways than one as an ever present material used in our daily lives across the globe. Plastics have their strengths.  They can be light, flexible, and cheaply produced; this is why we are sailing a large piece of plastic, Sakura, a fiberglass sailboat, a material composed of a part plastic and part glass mixture across 25% of the circumference of the Earth. Other plastic products beside Sakura can easily be blown across the sea. Have you ever witnessed the flight of the plastic bag?

The sun and the moon behavior towards Earth has a large impact indirectly spreading plastic pollution worldwide.  The sun can be so generous, sharing its warmth with our planet, while Earth makes a great manager distributing the various doses of heat to sustain our planet’s unique climates. Mother Nature it tasked in overseeing each climates unique set of established atmospheric and oceanographic forces. The moon wants some recognition too, using its gravitational force encircling our planet the moon persistently pushes and pulls our oceans resulting with tidal forces. Regional seasonal storms unique to climates or massive cyclonic globetrotting hurricanes and typhoons power wash the land sending littered or unsecured plastic debris downstream where currents and tides then direct the route of these polluting foreigners within the marine environment.

The plastic debris is often led to accumulate in one of the 5 major oceanic gyres, large areas of circulatory current often 1/3 the size of USA. Through the churning of the seas, UV rays from the sun, being nibbled by sea critters the plastic breaks down into microplastics less than the width of your fingernail and remain suspended indefinitely changing the once natural marine ecosystem.

History teaches us how humanity evolved and civilized the world through inventing technologies and exhibiting certain communal behaviors sometimes considering their environmental impact.  Cleaning up a mess as large as our man-made modern day ocean plastic pollution dilemma in the largest hostile wilderness on this planet is overwhelming. The ocean is alive! If we are not careful how and with what we consider using to “clean” the ocean surface we could actually cause more damage. Technologies if designed not considering their environmental impact could threaten the livelihood of fisheries surviving past their infancy, destroy depended upon habitat, and deplete one of our largest sources for oxygen production. It is plankton that occupy the depths of the world’s oceans starting from the surface, as a collective they act as a critical component in the sustainability of our planet.  An easier solution may be stopping the problem on land before it gets offshore.  Following better practices to keep plastic out of reach of the natural pollution distributive forces. Yes, how we DISPOSE of plastic is the problem. Yes, individuals, industries and populations may be considered careless to not take responsibility for their waste even if enforced to or not. The DESIGN and MANAGEMENT of plastics are also part of the problem. Yet product concepts and potential solutions like “Design to be Benign” and “Extended Manufacturer Responsibility” are challenging the status quo in plastic product production. What does it mean for a product to be “Designed to be Benign”? Can you name some product examples? What would “Extended Manufacture Responsibility” achieve after a plastic product was used and is ready for disposal?

Out here we find a lot of different types of plastic, all likely made with a different cocktail of unnatural and toxic chemicals. What are the chemicals that are added to plastic products and why are they often toxic? We catch a colorful plastic variety including: foam, fragments, fishing line, thin films (like plastic bags) and pellets (pre-plastic product form). While towing the trawl net for microplastics sample collection a few weeks back, we surveyed the Southwest edge of the North Pacific Gyre, and discovered how south the gyre extends before we turned west passing south of Hawaii. Outside of the gyre system we find much less plastic as it is much less concentrated than in a gyre, but still shows up often in our net. As we head for Japan it is unclear if we will be passing through another gyre, but the contents of each trawl will tell us if we are entering into yet another plastic gyre. I look forward to 6th Grades next blog! Until next time, let’s hope I do not have to break out the scrub brush again.

Latitude 17 47.000n Longitude 173 42.000e

Nicole Trenholm