From 23 September to 12 October, Arlo Hemphill of I am Wilderness worked with Greenpeace USA and the crew of the Arctic Sunrise to help capture a glimpse of how plastics are impacting the open ocean. Traveling from Scheveningen, Netherlands to New York City, he worked with a small team to sample for micro-plastics on the ocean’s surface using a tailored-made manta trawl. The trawl and the survey were designed by 5 Gyres, an organization committed to raising awareness on and stopping the flow of plastics in our ocean. 5 Gyres was formed by part of the team that first broke the story on the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, an area of the North Pacific Gyre the size of Texas with quantities of plastic contamination so high that it forms something of an oozing soup of plastic waste at the ocean’s surface.
Since the discovery of the Garbage Patch, 5 Gyres has been busy documenting similar pollution in the planet’s other four oceanic gyres, and across ocean basins more broadly. Part of this effort was the creation of the Trawl Share Data Program, an effort that allows ocean voyagers to voluntarily contribute to a global database of ocean plastic pollution. “Basically, we provide the man and ship power, and 5 Gyres lends us the tools to perform the study – including the signature manta trawl and standardized data sheets,” said Arlo.
Greenpeace USA is launching a major plastics campaign on the US east coast this coming fall and to do so needed to bring their Arctic Sunrise ship across the Atlantic from Europe. Arlo was invited along with another researcher (Lauren Reid) and a film crew (Michel Labreque & Julie Ouimet of N2pix) to join the trans-atlantic crossing and conduct the 5 Gyres trawl methodology along the way, an opportunity to gather plastics data in some of the most remote and wild waters on Earth.
Plastics are such a part of modern human society that they can now be found in nearly every ecosystem on Earth, from the most remote island rainforests to the deepest oceans. The quantities in which they have become omnipresent across landscapes have led some scientists to conclude they will be a persistent characteristic in the geologic record of our modern era – a timescale some now dub as ‘the Anthropocene’.
Despite the vastness of the Atlantic and the length the journey, the Greenpeace survey is just a small part in the global story of plastics. They documented the negative impact of humans on an otherwise near-pristine ocean wilderness, and by doing so contributing to a larger understanding of the problem at a global scale.
This is a long-term problem that will not be fixed by recycling alone. Rather, we need to reduce the amount of single-use plastics across the planet. Among other champions of plastic reform, Greenpeace is taking this issue to the source, by working with the major corporations and manufacturers that currently wrap and over-wrap every product in flimsy plastics. Please support them in their effort.