‘Alguita’ Returns From the Patch

Two days at sea in a research vessel, studying the effects of plastic on the ocean, would rock anyone’s world. PhD plastic pollution researcher, Win Cowger, did just that earlier this month and has returned to dry land and his world is still rocking. What he brings back should rock our world too – and in […]

Two days at sea in a research vessel, studying the effects of plastic on the ocean, would rock anyone’s world. PhD plastic pollution researcher, Win Cowger, did just that earlier this month and has returned to dry land and his world is still rocking. What he brings back should rock our world too – and in a timely way; just two weeks before the biggest civic action in human history, as if we needed a reminder of the scale of the problem, Win tells us what he encountered and what he feels needs to be done.

So, let’s get the first big myth out the way: you think ‘garbage patch’ you might think ‘landfill mass’, something you can see, touch, smell, easily identify with, even map on a trash app. Think again. Win’s team sailed 1000 km off the coast of California into what is known as the North Pacific Gyre, where currents and swells congregate tons of plastic, but in Win’s words: “It’s an accumulation area but it’s not like a land mass or pile. If you stick a net in the water, you’ll find hundreds of pieces of small fragments. By the time these pieces reach the Gyre, the plastic is very chewed up by organisms and corroded by sun, broken by wave action…..only fragments remain. Lots of them. The startling truth is scarier than the myth! Take a boat and a scraping device and swoop it up and landfill it? No way the reality matches that myth. It’s not like an island you can colonise and clean. It’s more like a soup. There are articles everywhere.”

Win points out that it’s dense, but not condensed in a convenient way. Water has a habit of making things like this difficult to collect. Even so, the ratio of plastic to plankton, for example, is scary. “Samples show that 10% of everything we collect is plastic! Imagine a fish or whale eating plankton; 10% of what they eat is actually plastic. Sea birds are eating it too. And this reality also exists back on land. Attention started in the oceans, sure, but now we’re realising that the huge problem in the ocean needs to be tackled at source – which is on land.”

So here’s another myth: plastic pollution is only killing life in the oceans. “Well, it’s clear now that animals on land are also suffering. We need to do something about it. Now. First start with cleanups; that’s why I’m part of World Cleanup Day. It’s a band aid on the symptoms though. We clean, we remove the current residual effects, but that’s not the real problem. The actual key problem is that we have this system that is creating these plastic products that we now have to deal with as people, as society. We can’t stop trash escaping our grasp, maybe it blows away in the wind from my hand. It sucks but it wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t plastic. It’s inherently a destructive material for the environment, especially single- use plastics.”

Back to the ocean then. “There’s a reason why we use plastic lures for fishing – they already see it as food! Imagine a fish or a whale or even plankton not being able to distinguish between its natural food source and plastic particles. From something like a plastic carrier bag to a nanoparticle, there is plenty of hard evidence that marine life is suffering badly.” Win witnessed this at sea.

“There are organisms not affected. We know that some of the larger fish were not apparently visibly affected, or it’s little enough that we haven’t found it. Some will be smart enough to distinguish but other organisms suffer terribly. Albatross fill their stomachs with this stuff, bottle caps and lighters, which they then feed to their young. Whales are washing up on shore with bags inside them. There’s a fish called the lantern fish, which feeds on the surface at night. We collected samples and the ratio of fish to plastic particles was 50/50. What are they eating? 50% plastic. It’s insane.”

Litter Base shows a running tally of all organisms found ‘affected’ (i.e. death by ingestion or entanglement) by plastic pollution in the sea. They’ve counted 1400 affected species so far: 22% of these are fish, 18% sea birds. There are 10 further categories, including micro-organisms, but that still means 40% of all those 1400 species are birds and fish. “That’s what the aggregated research is proving. So, it’s not just an isolated piece of research here – this is cumulative study. And it’s getting worse.”

“We’re still analysing the data. It’ll be about a year before we understand more about the degree of damage being done by microplastics to the fish, by nanoplastics to the plankton, and that’s just our research. There’s more going on, but it will take time that some species don’t have. There’s little understood, even at this point, about the impact of plastics that are not degrading, the stuff sitting at the bottom of the ocean floor. Nature may well work it out but at what cost while we wait? We need to act now. At source. Policy makers, managers and manufacturers need to look at the data coming back and act.”

We asked Win if there was one product he would make disappear, one causing the most issues, which would it be?
“The most commonly-found product is food packaging. It’s the number one issue, e.g. candy wrappers, potato chip packets, we make tons of it – it seems everything has to have its own wrapper! Let’s stop that – let’s start there – we do not need every piece of fruit wrapped in plastic. We even have plastic wrapped in plastic! It’s crazy!”
Win provides us with a stark reminder. “Most of us were born into a world full of plastics. Sure, it has its uses, it’s durable, flexible, cheap to make; healthcare like we have now would be impossible without it. Science too, with so many instruments made of plastic – there are tons of reasons why we need it, but the single-use plastics are the ones we should reconsider. They’re the ones we find out there – we find abandoned fishing nets, plastic nurdles (microplastic pellets the size of a pea), bottle caps, monofilament fishing lines and much more. It takes years for that stuff to reach the Gyre, by which time the sun and waves have broken it down into tiny pieces. The top 5m of ocean are full of it. And that’s the stuff that breaks down, but it takes a very long time to do so. The rest sinks to the sedimentary layers at the ocean floor or floats in the water columns. With less sunlight and wave action, that plastic just does not break down. So, although nature is finding ways to cope, the concern is we’re running out of time.”

“Even just 5kms off the coast of California, we found so many balloons! This is a huge issue in coastal environment pollution. We find crisp packets, one even had a fish trapped inside. Marine predators wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the fish and the packet. Of all the things we find out there, we don’t find lab or medical equipment. We rarely see anything big. Single-use packaging is the biggest problem.”

“We need to rethink our relationship to plastic. We know that there is more than 100 times as much plastic going into the oceans than we find. There’s no chance we’ll ever clear it all up. But what we can do is tackle the issue at source. We need to become lobbyists to politicians and businesses. We need to take individual responsibility too for our consumption and disposal of existing plastics. There is no one group who holds more responsibility than others – it’s a shared one. We all have our part to play.”

“For me it’s awesome to be part of the World Cleanup Day movement. I’m collaborating myself with 10 other groups – but there’s just not enough time in the day. I see the wider role of World Cleanup Day and Let’s Do It! World to develop and encourage the Keep It Clean Plan – that’s key to the success, encouraging and teaching people around the world how to live a sustainable and zero waste lifestyle and how to build zero waste systems. This is critical right now and I’m really happy you are pursuing this.”

“This is why I support World Cleanup Day and in particular the Keep It Clean Plan and the Zero Waste Planet ethos. We all need to work together.”

So, let’s do it!