Ocean Plastic Data: The Motherlode

The biggest set of data on ocean plastic in the world sits in the basement of Sea Education Association  in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. SEA has been bringing students out to sea on research sailing ships since 1971. Twice daily, whenever ships are at sea, surface neuston nets are towed alongside. The nets collect zooplankton, tiny animals that float with the currents. They also bring up an alarming amount of zooplankton-sized plastic. Plastic that enters the ocean doesn’t disappear, but it does break into smaller and smaller pieces over time. For decades students and scientists have extracted plastic from net samples, put it in vials and sent it off to Woods Hole.

The samples piled up. Then in 2008, SEA was awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation to sort through the data. After digging through boxes of plastic-filled vials, old computer archives, paper files and organizing it all, the first papers on this motherlode of data came out. The publication of “Plastic accumulation in the North Atlantic subtropical gyre” and “The size, mass, and composition of plastic debris in the western North Atlantic Ocean” resulted in what one witness called, “an insane media explosion.” Plastic in the ocean was becoming a big concern, but almost no one knew that data going back decades existed. The data were out of the basement!

IMG_2800 (1)Data keeps coming in and a frenzy of publications continues. I visited Jessica Donahue, keeper of the data, in the basement recently. “My job is to wring as much information as possible out of every little piece of plastic.” She categorizes each piece by form. Is it hard? Rope? Foam? Film? She measures the size of the plastic with a scanner. Most are tiny, measured in millimeters or centimeters. Donahue puts each piece into a spectrophotometer to identify what type of polymer it is made of. You can’t tell what the plastic started off as, but you can tell if it is polypropylene, polyethylene or polystyrene. Finally she puts the plastic under a microscope to look for surface features which may offer clues to what happens to plastic in the ocean.

Donahue and her colleagues want to find out how long it takes for a large item, say a laundry detergent bottle, to break into millimeter-sized microplastic. What is the timeline for plastic in the ocean? Nobody knows. When they find the answer, it will surely lead to more questions. That, Donahue explains, is the nature of science.

Donahue is breaking out of the basement this month. She is working as a scientist aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer on its transatlantic passage. She sails from Woods Hole to Cork, Ireland with scientists, crew and twenty-two enthusiastic undergraduate students. Twice a day they will tow a neuston net and collect samples. Then donned with headlights and armed with tweezers, students will pick the plastic out of the samples. The job can be tedious and even vomit inducing, but the students know they are contributing to the biggest set of data on ocean plastic in the world and that the answers needed to solve this problem may depend on these data. Brilliant stars, whale sightings, moon rises over the ocean, great music and wonderful people make up for queasy lab time too.

Want to keep plastic out of their net tows? Keep it out of the ocean. When you go to the beach, grab a bag from the BlueTube, pick up trash and throw it away. If your beach doesn’t have a BlueTube yet, sponsor one. Money from every BlueTube sponsorship goes to SEA to support their research on ocean plastic.