Thanks to Plastic, Your Chances of Finding Nemo Just Got Way Worse

Just how rampant is the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean?

This lonely plastic water bottle floats off the coast of Santa Monica, California is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to plastic pollution in the ocean. (Photo: Reuters)

Apr 19, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

The eve of the forty third Earth Day is a good time to reflect on some of the major environmental ills facing the planet’s one ocean. Perhaps the first would be to address the fact that since nearly 72 percent of the planet is covered by salt water, shouldn’t we really be celebrating the anniversary of Ocean Day?

Earlier in the week we looked at the future role of marine protected areas, specifically in the Antarctic Ocean, as a way to preserve or revive specific sections of ocean and coast. But one of the most insidious ocean pollution stories of the past few years is the amount of plastic swirling around in it.

Recent reports on the plastic that gathered in the Great Lakes were a reminder of those five sizable gyres filled with plastic particles, a story that since Dr. Charles Moore and the Algalita Research Institute first reported on the first in the North Pacific in 1997 has gotten lots of press attention.

The gyres have also inspired a couple great adventures.

In 2008, Marcus Eriksen rafted across the Pacific Ocean from California to Hawaii on “Junk”, a raft floating on 15,000 plastic bottles, 30 sailboat masts lashed to form a deck, and a Cessna airplane fuselage as a cabin. The journey, 2,600 miles in 88 days, sought to bring attention to the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans and solutions.

Two years later, David de Rothschild’s Plastiki—a catamaran constructed from 12,500 reclaimed plastic bottles, recycled PET plastic and waste products—sailed from San Francisco to Sydney Australia, taking four months from March to July in 2010. Modeled after Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 expedition aboard the Kon Tiki, the one-of-a-kind craft was propelled using sail, solar panels, wind and trailing propeller turbines and bicycle generators.

Both adventures have resulted in continuing education. Eriksen and his partner Anna Cummins went on to found the 5 Gyres Institute and have continued sailing around the world—on more substantial crafts—and sharing their stories in lectures and on the web. De Rothschild’s Plastiki is now at its new, permanent home in downtown Dallas, Texas. Trucked across three state lines, it is being donated to the Hunt Institute for Engineering & Humanity at SMU, the ROi Project and the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Ft. Worth to be used as an “urban innovation lab” for local youth.

I’m asked often about the plastic pollution in the ocean and the two most common questions are: 1) What about recycling all that plastic? 2) Can you walk on these islands of plastic?

Let's start with the gyre we know best, the North Pacific Garbage Patch, which is thought to contain 100 million tons of plastic. Most all of its plastic has been broken down into micro-particles, making it very difficult—and expensive—to scoop up and virtually impossible to step foot on.

And, yet, good stories abound. While our one ocean is laden with way too much plastic, and there is no easy way to clean it up, there are huge swaths of ocean that are plastic-free. I know because I have sailed and / or kayaked across many miles of them.

I really enjoyed a Huffington Post article the other day by my friend and ocean colleague J. Wallace Nichols, an associate with the California Academy of Science, in which he laments reading too many negative stories about the ocean to the degree he feels “sad, hopeless, angry and confused.”

Then I take a walk down the coast, and it blows my mind.

A young sea otter hops on the longboard while waiting on a wave.

A 300-pound sea turtle is released back into the bay.

A whale shark slowly and gracefully swims by, filtering plankton.

A favorite restaurant serves up local seafood carefully caught by someone the chef knows by his first name.

Kids dive into waves, making memories that will last forever.

While we shouldn’t shirk our responsibility of trying every day to use less plastic, so much of which ends up eventually in the ocean reduced to tiny nodule, similarly we shouldn’t stop remembering the ocean too for all its incredible restorative powers and dreamscapes.

Especially as we near Earth Day.

Do you think the United States federal government should pay for MPAs—marine protected areas? Tell us in the comments below.