It’s a sickening image: A decomposing albatross, its stomach pried opened to showcase a collage of plastic lighters and colorful bottle caps. But the famous photograph, taken by Chris Jordan as part of his Midway series, is quickly becoming just a highlight in a saddening collection of portraits of marine animals stuffed full of plastic waste. The scary part? They weren’t out feasting on some mythical “Island of Trash” floating through the ocean, much like we’ve been led to believe by our morning news hosts. If they had, the problem would be manageable—the reality of the plastic pollution situation is much worse.
“All I knew was there was this big ‘pile of trash where currents cumulate and it’s the size of Texas,’” says Mary Osborne, a Patagonia Surf Ambassador who, in 2010, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean with the 5 Gyres team to witness the pollution firsthand. “I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just fly there, document the gyre, help clean it up, and fly back.” With a team of 13, Osborne voyaged from Brazil to South Africa aboard the ship the Sea Dragon to the South Atlantic Gyre, a massive, slow rotating whirlpool where plastic waste accumulates. We caught up with the 31-year-old Ventura, California, native to learn about what exactly she discovered on her month-long expedition:
You mentioned that the much-accepted idea of this “floating island of trash” isn’t really what’s happening out in our oceans. What is happening and how is it worse than we thought?
Prior to the expedition, I really did think there was an “island of trash,” because that’s what was portrayed through the media. Once I saw it with my own eyes, I realized this is a much bigger global problem. It isn’t just a big area where trash accumulates—it’s millions and millions of tiny broken-down plastic fragments. It looked like colorful confetti scattered for miles throughout the ocean. You can only see so much with the human eye and it’s what is under the surface that is even worse. Our entire ecosystem is being affected by plastic pollution.
You helped 5 Gyres’ Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins collect samples from the gyre—what did you find? What was shocking about it to you?
We trawled every 60 miles for one hour across the Atlantic Ocean. The only time we couldn’t trawl was when the ocean was extremely rough (we hit some seriously rough waters). What was most shocking to me was seeing plastic fragments in every single trawl sample we deployed. Plastic pollution was definitely denser in the gyre location, but it was present the entire 4,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic.
And you’ve seen firsthand that our marine life is ingesting that waste.
I rarely eat fish due to what I learned on this expedition. If I do eat fish, I constantly wonder if the fish I am putting into my body was in contact with the plastic pollution or if it could potentially be harming me. It’s honestly disgusting and scary to think that our pollution is coming back full circle and could seriously become a harmful heath factor. When marine animals consume plastic particles, mistaking them for food, it leads to dehydration, suffocation, and possibly death due to the fact they can’t digest it properly. There are three major publicized photographs that come to mind when I think of animals harmed with plastic: The first one, Dr. Marcus Cummings’ picture of him cutting open a fish full of plastic he found during his voyage on Junk, a raft made from 15,000 bottles that he sailed to Hawaii. Second is the giant turtle who got stuck in plastic when it was young and over the years grew to look [deformed]. Third, a very popular photo by Chris Jordan in Midway Island of the dead mature Laysan Albatrosses.
Why is it such a big deal for humans?
One of the biggest concerns for humans is the health impacts of toxic chemicals entering the marine food chain. Persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs and DDTs that absorb onto plastic pellets get into the tissues and blood of the animals that eat plastic. For example, toxin-containing plastic pieces are eaten by jellyfish, which are then eaten by a larger fish, and then consumed by humans, resulting in their ingestion of toxic chemicals. It’s a horrible chain reaction that we all need to become educated about.
What are a few steps you’ve taken to reduce your own plastic use?
Every day I try to decrease the amount of plastic I use; however, I fail continuously. Just when I think I am doing good and not using it, something enters my path. I try to use [reusable] water bottles, shop locally from farmers to reduce the amount of trash consumed, and reuse cups, bags, and utensils. I hate using plastic water bottles, plastic throw away toothbrushes, razors, etc. In one of the most recent studies, 5 Gyres found there are now micro-plastics in our daily face scrubs and body scrubs. This is disgusting and how did I not know I was washing my face and body with plastic? And furthermore, letting it go down the drain? Craziness.
What can we do to help?
The biggest thing people can do is become educated. Take small steps, because trust me, it’s very overwhelming to eliminate all plastic. Every little bit helps sustain our planet, oceans, and sea creature friends.
Do you plan to work with the 5 Gyres Institute again soon? How can we support them directly?
Check them out at www.5gyres.org. They have a great blog and are always posting interesting plastic educational facts and hosting fantastic events. I just participated in an environmental fundraiser for 5 Gyres in San Francisco two months ago. We had a successful silent auction with great donated items from companies like Kleen Kanteen, Simply Straws, Skate One, and a surfboard by Russell Hoyte Designs. 5 Gyres put together a live game show hosted by comedian Chris Fairbanks and the 5 gyres ambassadors Bianca Valenti, Joao De Macedo, and Ryan Seelbach, along with professional snowboarder Chanelle Sladics, participated to help the audience contestants win prizes and get educated in a fun matter. It was overall a great event raising over $10,000. I will continue to work with 5 Gyres as much as I can. I truly believe in their organization; I have learned a tremendous amount working with them and look forward to learning more in the future.
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