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Seas of Plastic

Earlier this year, I read Flotsametrics and the Floating World, by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano, about ocean currents, how they have influenced history, and human impacts on the vast seas. (We published an excerpt, "Borne on a Black Current," earlier this year.)Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer,...

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Earlier this year, I read Flotsametrics and the Floating World, by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano, about ocean currents, how they have influenced history, and human impacts on the vast seas. (We published an excerpt, " Borne on a Black Current," earlier this year.)



Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer, is perhaps best known for his work tracking bath toys and sneakers to map the ocean's flow. But it was the chapters in which he and Scigliano described the acres and acres of plastic junk floating across the seas, washing up on distant shores by the ton and being consumed by wildlife, that I found most disturbing. And it's not just the plastic that we toss away that's the problem. Those bath toys and sneakers have come from container ships that lost their cargo. Other lost shipments are not nearly so innocent, Ebbesmeyer writes:

Greenpeace estimates that 10 percent of the 100 million tons of plastic produced each year worldwide ends up in the sea. That global production includes, by various estimates, 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags. It takes just one bag to choke a hungry sea turtle. If that 10 percent estimate holds for bags, then enough drift into the sea each year to kill all the sea turtles in the world thousands of times over. One shipping container holds about 5 million plastic bags, and I know of at least two such containers lost in the Turtle Gyre . No one knows what happened to their 10 million bags. The shipping industry is proud that it's reduced its annual loss rate from about ten thousand to two thousand containers out of roughly 100 million shipped each year. I tell them it only takes one to cause a catastrophe.


Captain Charles Moore, of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, found the Great Pacific Garbage Patch during a 1997 yacht race. (Ebbesmeyer has tallied eight garbage patches in total: four in the Pacific, three in the Atlantic and one in the Indian Ocean.) Since then, he has worked to understand how the plastic influences marine life and to make people aware of the problem. He gave the Ted Talk above in February of this year. The pictures are gut-wrenching.
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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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