The abundance of plastic garbage created by modern human civilization has infiltrated the deepest trenches of the world’s oceans and concentrated in huge areas on its surface. There is an estimated 5.5 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the world’s oceans. There are countless sources of this plastic debris, but virtually all of it originates on land through overuse of plastics in our daily lives and improper waste disposal. Once plastic trash enters the ocean, nature’s forces and the migration of marine species and birds determine how the plastic material and chemical compounds move and accumulate through the complex marine environment, including the food chain and the Plastisphere. Much of this plastic debris is concentrated at the centers of enormous oceanic current circulation regions, called gyres.

In order to better understand the nature of plastic debris in the ocean, ORP has conducted multiple research expeditions in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans. ORP completed its first marine debris research expedition in 2013. During this trip, its crew spent 70 days sailing in the Atlantic Ocean collecting samples of plastic trash in the water and mapping out the eastern side of the North Atlantic garbage patch. The following year, ORP embarked upon a second expedition to research microplastics pollution in the Pacific Ocean.  During this trip, ORP’s crew sailed 6,800 miles nonstop from San Francisco to Yokohama Japan, collecting microplastics samples along the entire trans-pacific route.

ORP’s research expeditions targeting the North Atlantic and North Pacific Gyres have helped increase the scientific community’s understanding of marine pollution from plastic debris. The extensive datasets that ORP collected during its expeditions contributed to the publication of Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea by Dr. Marcus Ericksen.

Due to the flexibility offered by doing research from a sailboat, ORP’s expeditions were able to dedicate a larger amount of time to collecting data samples across a much broader area than other similar types of marine research expeditions would typically cover. ORP’s research has provided an important baseline for marine surface debris data, as well as improving knowledge of the concentration, composition and extent of plastic debris in the ocean. ORP conducted its research in a manner that ensured the samples could be used to support further research being done as part of plastic pellet toxicity studies at the University of Tokyo’s Pelletwatch program. In addition, ORP’s research was designed to allow ORP and participating scientists to further define the diversity of the Plastisphere, specifically the roles played by bacteria and viruses in their evolving relationships with plastic debris in the ocean.

To date, ORP has sailed tens of thousands of miles, spent many months at sea, and a considerable amount of time in labs back on land sorting the samples and data. During our extended periods of time at sea, there was not one day that went by where we did not see foraging birds mistaking marine debris for food. The fight to prevent pollution from plastic debris in the ocean is best fought at the primary source, on land. Education is a critical element of this effort to increase public awareness and encourage proper disposal of plastic trash along with reduced use of plastics (link to ORP’s education page).

It will take considerable resources to continue monitoring the impact of plastic pollution on the marine ecosystem in order to determine where progress is being made. ORP recognizes the value that volunteer recreational mariners can offer to the long-term monitoring of the marine environment, through their observations of the conditions in various areas and feedback on target anomalies. ORP is working to develop a citizen science project that will enable cruisers to contribute to this effort, helping to archive the Plastisphere which is made up of bacteria and virus communities interacting with plastic debris.

ORP is also discussing a series of future expeditions with scientists to conduct important new research on marine debris, using new devices and sampling techniques in areas that have not been previously explored. Once the funding and equipment is in place for these expeditions, ORP will be able to expand it efforts in this area, and provide another level of insight into this critical issue.