Updated on January 4, 2019
By Erica Cirino, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla ‘Launchpad’ Fellow”
When I went sailing across the most polluted stretch of the Pacific Ocean—the North Pacific Gyre—in 2016 to document Danish scientists collecting plastic particles from seawater, I could not have imagined how deeply this 23-day journalistic expedition would change my life—personally and professionally. I stepped onto that boat thinking, “this is a cool opportunity to cover what I consider to be an important and developing story,” and stepped off—with wobbly legs, tanned skin and wind-tangled hair—thinking, “when can I get back out to sea? I want to—I need to—do this again.”
The sea did call me back, last year, and I sailed this time from the North Pacific across the equator into the South Pacific. Again, I documented the Danes’ sailing experience and scientific work. After taking long trips observing plastic samples being collected at sea for two consecutive years, I decided it might be time to transition—at least for a little while—from the boat to the lab. At sea I could see plastic, sure. I could document it and the people collecting it. I could see the problem, but I was curious: What did it mean?
I knew the scientists I’d sailed with had sent the plastic samples back to Denmark for analysis in a lab at Roskilde University, where one of the scientists on board–Kristian Syberg–was working. I realized that if I wanted to get those answers, I had to go to too. So, in true form—which for me basically means throwing myself entirely into the things I find exciting—I sold my car, gave away my belongings, packed two suitcases, said goodbye to my friends and family and left Long Island—my home-base for 26 years—to move to Denmark.
I secured residency in this tiny Scandinavian country for three years so I can spend a virtually unlimited amount of time at Roskilde University with the plastic samples. With enough patience, I will be able see their analysis through.
Hello plastic, my old friend. In the lab I was sent into the throes of some serious scientific déjà vu. While at sea it seemed like pulling plastic from the waves was a slooooow process, I soon learned that studying that same plastic in the lab isn’t much quicker—even though there are no nets to cast or slippery deck to navigate. First of all, there were many jars to work through: At sea we sampled every day, several times a day, unless the water was too rough or too calm for our equipment—most of which required the ship to be moving a moderate clip to work properly. Where to start?
That day, two lab techs named Katja and Anne began with samples collected by the vertical trawl, a long string of 11 tube nets that gets dragged next to the ship and is designed to capture plastic at various depths throughout the top 20 meters of the sea surface.
“Vertical trawl, 11/9, tube 7,” Katja announced, holding the jar up to the light. Several tiny confetti-like plastic particles swirling around inside.
Anne and Katja worked together in a tightly choreographed procedure:
1. Shake the sample jars so the water, a chemical to dissolve biological material and plastic inside are all well mixed
2. Pour the contents into a stack of sieves with mesh sizes spanning from small to very small to extremely small
3. Pluck the plastic bits from the two sieves with the biggest mesh sizes and place into labeled petri dishes
4. Look at plastic pieces in petri dishes under a microscope to confirm that they are plastic and not plankton or pieces of algae
5. Pour the plastic pieces from the smallest sieve into a vacuum device to concentrate them in the center of a fine metal mesh
6. Let the mesh dry and place into a petri dish for analysis
They repeated this process with each sample jar. Later, Katja and Anne will count each and every piece of plastic, and will try to determine what kinds of plastic they found by placing the tiny pieces into a machine that uses light to measure the pattern of its absorption or reflection off a substance—a technique called Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy. This will help them determine what sources the plastic fragments came from, whether that was mostly bags, bottles, balloons or other plastic items. This in addition to counting the plastic can help answer the following questions: In the North Pacific Gyre, is most of the plastic found closer to the very top of the sea surface, or is more found further down? What sizes of plastic are being found? And what types of plastic are present?
While my preferred place to do science is out at sea, watching Katja and Anne’s process was enlightening. I realized that without putting in time at the lab, we’d probably never learn many of the intricate details about the plastic pollution we find in nature.