By: Matt Rutherford On: June 20, 2014 In: Education, STEM Education Comments: 2

As we head Northwest every day that we trawl our samples increase in the amount of plastic micro-debris. The other day I amused myself for a few hours and I played a game trying to catch all the floating trash that went past the boat, with a large net while steering. There in the distance was a white floating object with a bird resting on top. It looked like a little ice berg. As it came close the bird flew away and I was in awe of the large chunk of foam. Every 5 minutes more debris would float by including, a car bumper, light bulbs and water bottles. I was certain that we reached the elusive North Pacific Gyre (Eastern Hemisphere). How does the plastic in this gyre behave? Would the debris stay suspended in this gyre indefinitely or be spit out onto nearby Pacific Island beaches with the possibility of becoming vulnerable to transformation into Plastioglomerate.

It seems like the Plastioglomerate you have reported on could only be created in environments on our planet where active but nonviolent volcanoes produce extrusive basaltic igneous materials that ooze and slowly cool, where the flow can make its way downhill towards the sea level where the washed up plastic debris collected upon the surf line is spread out amongst the natural deposits of sand and shell. The un-natural materials (plastics) and natural deposits would act as the clasts of a conglomerate and then be encompassed by a matrix, the basaltic lava flow and its remaining heat would act to bind the Plastioglomerate composition. Conglomerates are traditionally considered clastic sedimentary rocks and a combination of clasts bined by a matrix.  If I came across Pastioglomerate I would surely grab a piece to add the oddity to my rock collection. Finding these rocks would only occur at an active volcanic island producing chain like Hawaii, where underneath the seafloor at that location is hotspot a lava pocket slowly moving and bumbling off of the earth’s hot semi-liquid interior mantle and then pushing up through the earth’s oceanic crust. One way or another humanities waste will likely represent our existence on our planet and be recorded in the rock layers or strata of the earth. I can’t imagine plastics or any plastic rock composite being written in the records of the earth. If you think of the earth’s history fitting into a calendar year, starting on January 1st then man would not have showed up till 15 minutes before New Year’s on December 31st. The rest of the 15 minutes would represent history recorded as we know it with plastic impacting the earth for less than a century. Considering, Earth’s 4.6 billion year age and plastic unable to live past 500 years, plastic would eventually biodegrade and leave little to know evidence of existence. In mankind’s lifetime plastics presence in the environment, underground or at sea with its slow decomposition rate in relation to man’s average age and our when considering descendant populations can have impacts that could contaminate mankind’s vital resources, and debilitate our species and the biodiversity we depend on to survive.

Could you imagine as a future citizen of the planet taking a trip to a Grand Canyon, a place that shows evidence of the earth in the past, where undisturbed sequence of rock indicated younger layer on top of older layers and there near the top sits a layer like Plastioconglomerate, the waste of an intelligent species?  Actually, about 99% of the history of species on the planet are extinct and mass evidence of this is written in the rocks, in the strata layers appearing as index fossils. An index fossil helps define the age of rock. A good index fossil will be distinctive, abundant, wide spread and limited in a geologic time range.
Most fossil-bearing rocks formed in the ocean, therefore the majority of index fossils are marine organisms. Plankton the tiny and microscopic community that floats with the currents, whose small bodies rain down onto the seafloor then deposit often as a chalky rock. Lookup the Cliffs of Dover in England on the English Channel to see what the accumulation of plankton and marine species remains exposed in the atmosphere appears like in our modern day.  Before dinosaurs ran about on land and fish swam in the sea, creepy crawly ancestor of the crab, the trilobite flourished for 350million years.  They are a classic example of an index fossil, a pre-historic water bug that lived in all parts of the shallow seas and once roamed the world in the Middle Cambrian time to the end of Permian Period. They can now be found in a rock layer around the world bookmarking this time period. Do you think we can top that?

On a field trip a few years back my class drove up into the Appalachian Mountains just to pull off the highway and climb the side of a rocky highway cut that exposed the variety of index fossils showing signs of ocean creatures including fossils of corals, brachiopods and bryozoans, mollusks and if you were lucky trilobites and ammonites.

Clearly the earth is dynamic and its ocean and land plates, shift, overlap and twist around. These clues are present on land.  Could natural geologic activities further impact plastic’s effect on humanity and our recorded existence on our planet? Could it overturn, bake and fuse rock with plastic and other waste of a landfill that could release its toxicity to ground water or streams headed offshore that humans and marine species could be subjected to? The long term impacts we are yet to discover.

Matt and I are still underway full sail on the Sakura and a bit northeast of the Marianas Trench on our final stretch to Japan. This trench is thought to be the deepest place in the ocean and a major fault line of great powerful geologic activity. It is part of The Ring of Fire, a name for the border of the Pacific Tectonic Plate where the plate’s heavy basaltic ocean crust is sinking underneath lighter continental crust, occasionally causing earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis all around its boundaries. Such natural and catastrophic activity can easily uproot plastic waste on land, displace it offshore and onto islands.

Plastic will not likely be around long enough to withstand the roller coaster ride of the tectonic plates nor survive the variety of possible catastrophic events. Plastic is much more of a present day and near future problem and can be solved.

We will expand on solutions and examples of the R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Redesign and Recover) in a post expedition blog where we will share the outcome of your summer research assignments. Our team will post many of them to share your great solution ideas.  Co-writing this blog with the 6th graders of Old Mill Middle School has been the highlight of the research expedition. This summer consider what you throw away, where you throw it away. On vacation or during the 4th of July give this some thought. Ask adults how you can properly dispose of items or refuse the use of one use throw away items. Explain to your friends and family why you are making these decisions and share with them how plastic affects the marine environment, species within it and in return ourselves. Think about what you buy, is it environmentally friendly? One way to learn about whether or not a plastic material is environmentally friendly and without harmful Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) or toxin additives is to research the product. Some companies may be good at fooling us into thinking their products are environmentally friendly, this is called greenwashing you can check which products are greenwashed and which are not at, and Be careful with using one use throw away plastics, plastic or unnatural items outside this summer the last thing you want is for it to sail out into the middle of the ocean just to wind up in the center of a gyre and ultimately in the belly of your favorite aquarium animal.

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Day 52

Nicole Trenholm