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From Anacostia To The Atlantic: How Our Trash Travels

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Pieces of plastic found in the Atlantic Ocean.
Sabri Ben-Achour
Pieces of plastic found in the Atlantic Ocean.

There's a trash trap over a creek at Marvin Gaye Park in Northeast Washington, D.C. It skims the surface for floating trash. There's a potato chip bag, an ice cream container, a plastic grocery bag and a water bottle. All in all, this trap catches about 800 pounds of trash a month. But in most streams, trash like this will float into the river, then the ocean, and then maybe into the hands of Mary Engels.

Engels is the science coordinator at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass. She pulls out plain brown boxes from a pile of more boxes. Arranged in shiny silver rows are hundreds of little tins. Each tin has dozens of confetti-like pieces of plastic inside.

"This is our plastic archive collection," says Engels, as she rhythmically shakes the bits around. "These samples were taken in the Sargasso sea east of Bermuda."

The place in the Sargasso Sea where these pieces were strained from the water is 1,000 miles from D.C., out in the Atlantic.

The samples are from what's called a subtropical gyre--a giant swirl of calm water near the equator. The earth has five big ones, thousands of miles across. The way the planet spins and the currents flow, the gyres end up collecting all kinds of trash.

Researchers skimmed the surface with a meter-wide net for about a mile, in the open ocean, and this is what they got.

"There's a whole mixture of small pieces in here," she says. The fibers are several millimeters in size and come in shades of blues, greens and whites. Some pieces are opaque and resemble sheet plastic. There are darker pieces, as well.

It's hard to tell by looking what these bits once were or where they came from.

Giora Proskurowski, a research scientist at the University of Washington, says the primary types of plastic are polypropylene, which include fishing lines, nets, clothing, yogurt containers, and food packaging. He explains polyethylene is plastic bags, and foam polystyrene is Styrofoam.

Proskurowski has collaborated with the SEA and says the trash probably comes from the land.

"If you look at the oceanography and where the water moves, it's very hard to move from hemisphere to hemisphere," he says. "So in the north Atlantic, it's almost certain that the sources of plastic are from the United States, Europe, the gulf and Caribbean region."

He estimates there is somewhere between 2 and 27 times more plastic in the oceans than anyone thought because until now people didn't realize how much more plastic there was below the surface. There is conflicting research from different oceans, but one survey in the Pacific found the quantity of plastic there had increased dramatically.

"Over the last four decades, plastic has increased in the North Pacific by 100 times," says Miriam Goldstein, a graduate student researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

She says there is no floating island of trash. It's more like confetti mixed in with the water.

"There's this misconception that there's like a big floating garbage dump you can see and go to, and walk on but actually most of the plastic is really small."

So what then is the big deal?

"We actually think that is probably worse," she says. "Having all these tiny pieces floating all around. Cause if there was an island it'd be easy to fix--send a barge out there, pick it up, done."

The problem is that things eat this plastic. Karen Lavender Law, with the Sea Education Association has she's collaborated with Proskurowski, and has seen it first hand.

"We certainly have seen plastic in the gut of a Mahi Mahi we caught for dinner," she says. "We trawl a fishing line off the side of the boat, and in the name of science we dissected it, we brought aboard this beautiful fish, and in the name of dinner we filet it. And in the gut, there were some pieces of plastic, gridded material 2 x 3 inches in size. It's not good for the fish to eat that, but we don't know what harm it was causing the fish."

It's worrisome because plastics, Law says, act like sponges for more harmful persistent pollutants like PCB's. They concentrate in plastics and the same compounds show up in fatty animal tissue. One survey found 9 percent of small ocean-going fish had plastic in their stomachs. Another survey found 87 percent of some bird species ingested plastic.

"And that plastic can travel much farther than most of us would ever imagine," he says. "When you're 2,000 miles away from land, and can dip your net in the water and get 200 pieces of plastic, that seems insane to me. It's like going to the very farthest part of the Amazon and seeing plastic bags in every single tree."

He says it's something to think about next time you see a plastic bag blowing down the street.


[Music: "All Around the World" by Oasis from Be Here Now]

Photos: From Anacostia to the Atlantic

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