Roskilde scientist Kristian Syberg watching for large pieces of plastic. Top image: Erica Cirino

Sailing Through Garbage Bag Ocean

I sailed from LA to Honolulu with Danish nonprofit Plastic Change to finish a global survey on ocean plastic. Short answer: The Pacific plastic problem is probably worse than you thought.

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Feb 2 2017, 1:00pm

Roskilde scientist Kristian Syberg watching for large pieces of plastic. Top image: Erica Cirino

It's 5:30 AM, the sky still pitch black, save for the glow of a waning crescent moon and a sprinkling of stars, when I take the wheel. I'm in the cockpit of a 64-year-old, 54-foot steel sailboat from Denmark called the S/Y Christianshavn.

Only part of the rudder remains functional—half of it cracked the night before, making steering quite difficult—and we have no engine after a rope got caught in the propeller, damaging it, just a few days into the expedition. My sailing partner Rasmus Hytting, a Copenhagen-based sailor and boat builder, directs me to keep the wheel steady as he rushes up to the mast to replace a sail that's just ripped in the heavy winds. Our captain Torsten Geertz scrambles up on deck to assist, his long blond hair still matted from sleep.

Gripping the wheel with both hands, I stare at the horizon and marvel at the fact the Christianshavn's been able to cover more than 2,000 miles across the vast Pacific Ocean on wind power alone. Now less than 50 miles from our destination, Honolulu, our crew of nine people have spent 23 days at sea sailing from Los Angeles. In our time out here we've seen a small number of birds, a handful of whales, dozens of dolphins, 22 sunrises, 22 sunsets, the occasional passing ship, and lots and lots of plastic.

Plastic Change volunteer and scientist Malene Møhl

Plastic Change volunteer and scientist Malene Møhl helps secure a tangle of discarded fishing gear collected from the sea to the deck of S/Y Christianshavn. Image: Erica Cirino

The Pacific is full of plastic, home to one of the most famous pollution hotspots in the world, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There, plastic trash swirls around in a circular ocean current, or gyre, all around the Pacific between California and Hawaii.

I was invited aboard the Christianshavn by Plastic Change, a Danish nonprofit fighting plastic pollution, to see the group's plastic monitoring work in action. (Plastic Change also invited American artist Chris Jordan, who's famous for his photographs of plastic-filled albatrosses, to come aboard and document their work.)

Henrik Beha Pedersen, an environmental biologist and co-owner of Christianshavn, founded Plastic Change just three years ago and has set out to collect the latest scientific data on ocean plastics. His biggest focus isn't on the large pieces of trash that we see floating by the ship every 15 minutes or so—an abandoned plastic fishing buoy, a jagged piece of an orange laundry basket, a tangled mass of colorful nylon ropes and fishing nets. Plastic Change's biggest focus is on the tiny white specs that cloud the ocean's surface in large blobs, plastic particles five millimeter or less in size called microplastic.

Microplastic is tiny, with some pieces too small to be seen with the naked eye. Because it's so small, microplastic is accidentally consumed by small ocean creatures from zooplankton to larval fish, where it then moves up the food chain. Larger pieces of plastic also pose a risk to marine wildlife, such as sea turtles, which often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, and seabirds like Laysan albatross, which are regularly found with lighters and children's toys in their stomachs.

Besides posing a choking hazard, plastic poisons the animals that consume it. Scientists says this poisoning effect is currently a growing concern with plastic pollution.

"The main problem is that microplastic acts as a sponge that soaks up chemicals," Kristian Syberg, PhD, an associate professor of environmental risk at Roskilde University in Denmark, tells me one day when we're sitting together in the ship's cockpit, a thousand miles from Honolulu. "Its shape, its chemistry, allows it to take up toxins."

Microplastic has an affinity for absorbing toxins—typically "persistent organic pollutants" such as PCBs and pesticides that take a long time to degrade in nature. The smaller the microplastic particles get, the more surface area they gain and thus the more absorptive they become. And microplastics don't degrade completely; instead, over time sunlight and ocean waves break them down into ever-tinier—ever-more-toxic—pieces.

"These toxins are lipophilic, meaning 'fat-loving': Once they enter a living being—whether it's a sea turtle, whale or human—they get stored in that animals' fat cells," says Syberg. "Once in the food chain, toxins aren't easy to remove. Often these chemicals get passed from generation to generation, from the bodies of mothers to their young."

The plastic ocean sailors

From left: Plastic Change Founder Henrik Beha Pedersen, Malene Møhl and Kristian Syberg sort plastic pieces trawled from the sea by size in metal sieves. Image: Erica Cirino

Pedersen initiated a two-year sailing journey he's called "Expedition Plastic" to quantify and study the nature of microplastic in the seas. In 2015, Plastic Change completed the first two legs of the expedition, trawling the waters of the Mediterranean and Caribbean—other ocean trash hotspots—for plastic. The ship crossed the Panama Canal then sailed from Colombia up through the Galapagos, then went to Los Angeles. This Pacific sail is the last leg of the expedition.

When Pedersen created his organization, he realized he'd need a multifaceted approach to tackling plastic pollution. As a trained biologist, he says he realizes it's important to understand the scope of the problem through science—hence, all the trawling and water sampling. The data his organization collects is shared with ocean nonprofit 5 Gyres Institute, which will create an online ocean model quantifying pollution in the Pacific and other plastic hotspots.

"The more data and documentation, the better," says Pedersen. "Something exciting I hope to do is convince major shipping companies like Denmark's Maersk to systematically test their cooling water for microplastic and release that data to us."

On the Pacific expedition, Pedersen set out to collect microplastic samples from the ocean's surface and in the top 20 meters. He also sought water samples at depths of zero, 50, 100, 150 and 200 meters to better understand where plastic is accumulating; whether it's mostly near the surface or deeper in the water column. At least three of each type of sample were collected. This information can help evaluate the accuracy of current and previous studies that quantify ocean plastic, many of which have focused on plastic at the surface.

Pedersen says he also realizes it's important to convey science in a way people can understand. So he works with independent artists and writers to help document his group's work. Using the data and documentation, Pedersen hopes to convince the public, policymakers and industry that society needs to cut its dependency on plastic.

An educated public can make better decisions when it comes to buying plastic-alternative products, avoiding use of plastic products and supporting anti-plastic legislation such as plastic bag and styrofoam bans. Educated policymakers can create and push bills that curb plastic production and use. And educated industries can better innovate, creating new, plastic-free products.

The recent enactment of bans on plastic microbeads—a type of round microplastic commonly found in toothpastes, soaps and body scrubs that are now also common found in the oceans—in several countries, including the US, is one example of how education can affect all three kinds of stakeholders. Policymakers proposed a bill, the public supported it and industry came up with plastic-free alternatives.

Yet even if stakeholders are aware of the scope of the plastic pollution and decide to move away from the use of plastic products in everyday life, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to stop the disaster that's already been set in motion by decades of plastic use.

"In the oceans plastic particles will be ground down into smaller and smaller pieces," Pedersen says matter-of-factly. "So even if we could stop pollution today, the vector effect would just be a growing problem."

A pile of plastic items

A pile of plastic items scooped out of the sea by the Plastic Change crew includes a styrofoam packing block, green squeeze bottle and pink dustpan. Image: Erica Cirino

An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year. By the year 2050, scientists estimate the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish. Pederson is determined to make sure that doesn't happen.

When our engine fails five days into the expedition, Pedersen calls the crew into the cockpit. There, Geertz explains the implications of sailing on wind power alone: It will take a while to get to Hawaii. We will have to follow a course different than that which we had planned. If someone falls overboard, it will be difficult to find and retrieve them, especially in rough seas.

"If anyone is uncomfortable continuing, please let us know," says Geertz. "We can still turn around and go back to Los Angeles."

The crew, unanimously, agreed to sail on. So sail we did, through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

At home in New York I'm used to seeing plastic on shorelines and the sides of streets every day when I'm out driving or walking the dog. Still, it shocks me that in the middle Pacific, more than a 1,000 miles from land in any given direction, plastic is still easily found.

On the ship I, like each of my crewmates, am expected to work on deck for a total of eight hours a day, split into two four-hour shifts—one during the day and one at night. Every fourth day I am relieved from sailing and instead have cooking duty, tasked with preparing two hot meals a day for all nine sailors and keeping the ship tidy. Our schedule rotates on the fourth day, so my shifts switch around. I sneak in some sleep in my slim, sarcophagus-shaped bunk whenever the opportunity presents itself.

To collect plastic for their survey,  Syberg and Malene Møhl, an advisor on chemicals to the Danish Ecocouncil and Plastic Change volunteer, work with two types of trawls and a water sampler. The manta trawl, which skips across the water, stood out the most: After ensuring it's securely tied to the spinnaker boom on the starboard side of the ship, Syberg, Møhl and Geertz toss the trawl into the water on the count of "tre, to, en." Then they direct Hytting, who stands at the wheel, to keep the ship at a slow speed of two to three knots.

Vertical trawl

Henrik Beha Pedersen watches his team's vertical trawl settle beneath the ocean's surface. Image: Erica Cirino

After four hours, Syberg hooks the trawl's rope with a long gaff, and Geertz helps him haul it aboard the ship. Geertz holds up the trawl's fine 300-micron mesh tube for an initial inspection. Visible through the tube's dripping end are little white beads, accompanied by flecks of blue, green and orange.    

"It's filled with plastic and nothing else," says Syberg with a sarcastic laugh. "Welcome to the plastic soup!"

They repeat the process over and over during the trip, sorting the plastic samples by size aboard the ship. At sea, the team gathers samples of plastic, water, fish and seaweed, which they'll send to Syberg's lab in Denmark once they reach Honolulu. In the lab, Syberg will sort the plastic by color, shape, and weight, to help determine where plastic is coming from. Then he'll count the microplastic particles, and, using GPS coordinates to calculate square kilometers covered while trawling, estimate the amount of plastic that's in the Pacific. Later, Syberg will chemically analyze the plastic, water and biological samples to test their toxicity.  

The more data Syberg can supply to Plastic Change, the better the organization's chances of convincing stakeholders plastic pollution in the oceans is a problem that needs to be addressed now.

Tiny kitchen

Johns Hopkins University scientist Peter Andersen cooking mahi-mahi soup in S/Y Christianshavn's tiny kitchen. Image: Erica Cirino

On day 22 I'm standing in the kitchen nibbling on some breakfast with several other crew mates when suddenly—CRACK. The sickening noise of some important mechanical part breaking precedes a sudden, jarring movement of the ship. Plates fly onto the ground, I fly into a wall and a (thankfully) lukewarm metal teakettle flies off the stove and into my thigh. This can't be good.

It's not. My sailing partner Hytting crawls out from under a mechanical room under the stern and holds up a greasy metal part. "This is part of the rudder," he says matter-of-factly, wiping his brow with his forearm. "It's broken."

The old ship, it seems, has taken a beating from the rough seas we'd been experiencing the past few days. Not being able to steer a ship is a serious situation, so Pedersen called another meeting to brief the crew. Plastic Change has a job to do, to complete its Pacific voyage and get the scientific samples to Hawaii so they could be sent to Denmark.

Geertz delineates new jobs: Hytting would work on building a replacement wooden "Viking" rudder with the help of Peter Andersen, another crewmate. Geertz himself would call and keep in touch with the US Coast Guard, which he'd update on our condition. Crewmate Sofie Zander would cook. The rest of us would trade off sailing shifts.  

The wooden rudder was working well for a few hours, but then ended up breaking in the rough seas. So Geertz tries an old sailing trick, tying a spinnaker boom to the back of the ship with two ropes. The extra weight of the metal boom allows one to steer by pulling on one of two ropes. While we're moving toward Honolulu, the situation is precarious and tedious. Everyone seems on edge.

I volunteer to help secure the extra sails on deck which we need to tuck away before reaching Hawaii. The ship is bucking and thrashing in the rough seas, making it impossible to fold the sails from a standing position. So, my harness line clipped onto the ship, I crawl around on my hands and knees from sail to sail to get the job done.

I'm thirsty, hungry and exhausted but keep working till the sun goes down. Right before it does, something magical happens: No less than 30 bottlenose dolphins began jumping and playing in the enormous waves around our ship. Suddenly, the crew's morale is lifted. I smile, so does the rest of the crew. Everyone sailor knows dolphins are a good luck charm.

Around midday on our 23rd day at sea, I'm gently shaken awake by Andersen. I passed out in my bunk as soon as my nightshift ended at 6 AM, so when I open my eyes I'm a little groggy and wave him away. But when he tells me we've made it to Honolulu, I'm suddenly filled with energy. I slide out of my bunk, quickly grab my camera and head upstairs. Once up in the cockpit I can see a small boat is towing Christianshavn to a ship slip in a turquoise-blue harbor. Both shimmering skyscrapers and dark mountains loom in the horizon.

We made it.

A few men working in the harbor help us secure our ship to the slip. Then one by one, we climb from Christianshavn up onto solid ground. Pedersen goes first, his blue eyes glinting with triumph: His team of scientists have collected all the samples they needed, his ship has completed its voyage despite losing its engine and rudder, his crew is healthy. The trip was a success.

Catch o' the day

Peter Andersen shows off a freshly caught mahi-mahi, one of eight he and sailor Rasmus Hytting (left) caught during the trip. Image: Erica Cirino

Plastic Change awaits the results of Syberg's laboratory tests on this latest round of sampling in the Pacific. Yet the group has already learned a lot about ocean plastic from the first leg of Expedition Plastic, in the southwest Mediterranean Sea. There, they found microplastic is more abundant in number of pieces than larger pieces of plastic, with the highest concentration of microplastic—20,717 particles per square kilometer—found near the coast of Sicily. In his lab, Syberg examined the microplastic and found most was transparent in color and fragmented in size, indicating plastic water bottles and packaging likely make up a large percentage of all plastic pollution in the marine environment.

In the meantime, Pedersen and members of his organization are giving presentations and creating short videos to help raise awareness about ocean plastic, and microplastic in particular. They want people to understand that the problem is a serious one requiring major efforts on behalf of everyone—scientists, industry, policymakers and the public alike—to work toward a future where our world is no longer choked by plastic.

"Plastic is everywhere and there's no easy way to clean it up," says Pedersen. "At this point the best thing we can do is reuse it, use less of it or, best of all, stop using it."

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