Preliminary results of our oceans shows alarming amount of plastic debris

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There’s a race taking place and it doesn’t result in ribbons or plaques. It’s the “Race for Water Odyssey”. Sponsored by the Race for Water Foundation, this 300 day voyage, which will travel over 40,000 nautical miles, will create the first global assessment of plastic pollution in the ocean by visiting island beaches situated in the 5 “gyres” (trash vortexes)..

This sea odyssey will include 11 scientific stopovers and 9 outreach stopovers, involving a total of 13 countries. The expedition has two goals:

  • to compile a human and environmental assessment of the current state of plastic pollution in the oceans, thanks to scientific and sociological investigations.
  • to raise awareness about the issue of plastic pollution in the ocean in order to bring together the general public, industries, and legislators together against this issue.
Macro plastics found in our oceans, photo by Peter Charaf, courtesy of Race for the Water Foundation

Macro plastic debris found in our oceans, photo by Peter Charaf, courtesy of Race for the Water Foundation

The Race for Water Odyssey (R4WO) is supported by ISAF, Duke University, Oregon State University, senseFly, Swisscom and Swissnex.

Race for Water Odyssey has just published its initial observations drawn from data collected during its first six month expedition. The Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne’s (EPFL), Central Environmental Laboratory is currently running an analysis of the plastic debris samples collected from the different beaches. After this initial phase, the samples will be handed over to the University of Bordeaux in France to run eco toxicity tests on fish eggs, then to the HEIA in Fribourg, Switzerland, where they will study the absorbed pollutants in the micro plastic. As part of the Plankton Planet science project, R4WO also sent plankton samples collected during the expedition to the USA in late August.  

Preliminary findings are alarming.

Plastic fills crevasses on our beaches, photo-by Peter Charaf, courtesy of Race For Water Foundation

Plastic of all sizes fill crevasses on our beaches, photo-by Peter Charaf, courtesy of Race For Water Foundation

Samples delivered to EPL from the first three stopovers in the Azores, Bermuda (North Atlantic waste accumulation zone) and Easter Island (South Pacific) showed that all three islands are polluted by macro (>2.5mm) and micro (<5mm) debris. Plastic pollution is widespread..

Plastic makes up the vast majority of macro waste; it represented 84% of waste collected in the Azores, 70% in Bermuda and 91% on Easter Island. Hard plastic made up between 40 and 74% of the total amount of macro plastic, fishing line and rope was the next biggest category, followed by foam, capsules, film and cigarette filters. Maritime and fishing activities account for the rope and fishing line. Bermuda was more affected by this type of pollutant than the Azores or Easter Island.

Macro Debris found off Bermuda, photo by Peter Charaf, courtesy of Race for Water Foundation

Macro Debris found off Bermuda, photo by Peter Charaf, courtesy of Race for Water Foundation

Hard plastic also made up the majority of the micro plastic findings. This is explained by the fact that macro plastic is broken down by waves and solar radiation. The next biggest category of micro waste is fishing line. In the Azores and on Easter Island, ‘pellets’ – another type of micro plastic – stood out.

“Pellets are the basis of all industrial plastic production,” said Frederic Sciacca, scientific advisor to R4WO. “This waste generally derives from container ships losing their cargo in bad weather. However, it can also come from poorly controlled industrial activities on the continent. Loose pellets are easily swept up by rainwater run off and deposited in rivers and then the oceans. These pellets can be a real scourge; especially on Easter Island where they made up 36% of the total collected micro waste”  he said.

An ‘eBee’ drone from SenseFly, a Swiss company, is being used for the first time as part of a large-scale environmental project to create high-resolution maps of the beaches and offshore areas studied. The aim is to assess the capabilities of this innovative technology with hopes of one day developing a powerful tool that detects macro waste. After some initial adjustments, the material produced by the drones has been used to create an image bank that records and identifies waste, particularly the plastic macro waste that litters the shorelines. These images are currently being analysed by Duke and Oregon State Universities.

Despite the recent capsize of its flagship off the Chagos Archipelago on September 12th, the Race for Water Odyssey’s environmental expedition continues. The next phase will take place on Rodrigues Island from September 26th -30th and will provide additional data on waste concentration in the Indian Ocean. Analysis continues in tandem at the EPFL laboratory, at the University of Bordeaux and at the HEIA in Fribourg, while Duke and Oregon State Universities continue processing the aerial images.

We consumers would do well to use these preliminary findings as a big wake-up call. We can no longer afford the “ease” of using plastic packaged products. The price to our oceans and marine life is just too high.

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