Thoughts on the “Talking Trash” section at Science Online

January 3, 2010

Welcome to the zombie Oyster’s Garter, resurrected from the blogular grave to eat your braaains. Or at least to pick your brains (which in the context of zombies sounds most distressing.). At the upcoming Science Online conference, I will be co-moderating a panel called “Talking Trash: Online Outreach from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” The other panelists are freelance journalist Lindsey Hoshaw, who made news this summer by crowdsourcing her trip to the North Pacific and writing about it in the New York Times, and photographer/videographer/ocean advocate Annie Crawley, who was with me on the R/V New Horizon as a documentarian for Project Kaisei. (Bonnie Monteleone was originally going to be on the panel but unfortunately had a scheduling conflict.)

We are planning on letting our panel be largely audience-driven, but we would like to get a feel for what you are interested in. (If you are not attending Science Online, fret not – our session will be either livestreamed or recorded or both – if livestreamed you can ask questions on the web.) I can’t speak for my co-moderators, but I don’t want this session to get too hung up on specific marine debris issues – I think it would be much more interesting to talk about our experience trying to meld real-time science, nonprofit advocacy, outreach, and journalism.

Here are some preliminary questions. Please comment and tell us what you think. This is also posted at the Science Online wiki, and you are invited to comment there as well.

  • Why is the media & the public so interested in trash in the ocean? Can this interest be leveraged/created for other issues?
  • We are three people with different perspectives on what is important in communication: a scientist, a journalist, and a journalist-artist-filmmaker-documentarian.
    • What were our disagreements? Here’s a few examples off the top of my head: I did not agree with much of Lindsey’s NYT article; Annie had a tough time getting stressed-out scientists (me included!) to work with her while at sea, SIO is an academic institution while Project Kaisei and AMRF are nonprofit advocacy groups.
    • Do we as scientists/journalist/artists have a common goal? Beyond Littering Is Bad? Is loving the ocean enough?
    • If we do have a common goal, what are lessons learned from this summer? What would we do differently next time?
    • Can we offer advice to other scientists/journalists/artists trying to work together?
  • How can scientists, journalists, and educators balance “exciting findings live from the field!” with “highly preliminary unpublished non-peer-reviewed data that our labwork might contradict”? For example, one thing that is tough with advocacy and education is the scientific emphasis on peer-reviewed publication – the timescale is waaaay too slow for good real-time communication. How can we be accurate, entertaining, and educational?

Here’s some background on our experiences in the Gyre:

Miriam

Annie

Lindsey


Seeking the Science of the Garbage Patch

July 27, 2009
The R/V New Horizon

The R/V New Horizon

It’s finally time to announce why I’ve been neglecting the poor Oyster’s Garter all summer. This Sunday, August 2nd, the first Scripps expedition to study plastic accumulation in the North Pacific Gyre will depart San Diego. A collaboration between Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the nonprofit Project Kaisei, SEAPLEX (Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition) aims to quantify exactly how much plastic is a lot, and what effects the debris might have on the base of the food web.

And I’m SEAPLEX chief scientist. Eeek.

But I couldn’t possibly lead a blog-less Twitter-less cruise. And I especially couldn’t work on this issue without giving people a chance to see the problem (virtually) first-hand. So you’ll be able to follow along with SEAPLEX through our blog and our Twitter feed. You can also sign up to receive email updates by joining the SEAPLEX Google Group.

Though our internet access at sea will be limited, we will be able to respond to your questions and comments. We are incredibly excited to go on this cruise and even more excited to share our observations with you. So get your RSS feeds ready – it’s going to be an interesting three weeks.


This is not the gyre you are looking for

March 24, 2009

This photo is all over the internets as a photo of the North Pacific Trash Gyre:

But a clever person on Flickr found the original image, and this is neither trash nor the central Pacific nor a gyre. The land is Japan and the swirl is a large eddy with a plankton bloom in it. The bloom is probably a single-celled algae called “coccolithophores” which are known to form large blooms that turn the water pale blue.

Eddies commonly break off of the Kuroshio Current near Japan (it’s the Gulf Stream of the Pacific) and go swirling about on their own for weeks or months, trapping plankton inside. Since plastic is transparent and does not reflect much light, the tiny bits of trash in the North Pacific Gyre cannot currently be seen by satellite.

 


Talk amongst yourselves – I’ll give you a topic

June 23, 2008

I had all kinds of intelligent things to write, but I’m somewhat under the weather today, so I’ll just link lazily instead.

  • Is there too much doom and gloom in conservation outreach? Mark Powell says yes, Rick MacPherson says no, Mark says YES NEENER NEENER, Rick says NO PBBBT. Me, I try to enjoy the gloom as much as possible – all those beautiful opportunities for black humor that my ancestors never even dreamed of. In fact, maybe this discussion can be settled with a klezmer danceoff!
  • The New York Times Magazine has a feature on trash in the ocean. It focuses on Alaska, which has the same trash accumulation problem as the Northwest Hawaiian Islands – it’s getting trash from the North Pacific Gyre. Volunteers in the Kenai Fjords picked 30 tons of trash off just one beach.

Is there really six times more plastic than plankton in the North Pacific Gyre?

June 10, 2008

Because of all the traffic on this post, I wanted to clarify that I am completely convinced that there is lots of plastic in the North Pacific Gyre, and that it is a serious environmental problem. My issue with the plastic:plankton ratio is that it doesn’t accurately measure the amount of plastic.

The Algalita Marine Research Foundation is great at raising awareness of the problem of trash in the North Pacific Gyre. They’ve tirelessly lobbied for political change, coined terms like “plastic soup,” worked in the schools, and are sailing the Junk raft to Hawaii as we speak. However, as part of their quest to make the enormity of the plastic problem understood, they’ve been claiming that there is six time more plastic than plankton in the North Pacific Gyre. The 6:1 ratio has appeared in PBS, The Seattle Times, and has been repeated all over the internet.

Though I admire Algalita’s work, the 6:1 plastic:plankton ratio is deeply flawed. Worse, it is flawed in a direction that undermines Algalita’s credibility: It may vastly underestimate plankton and overestimate plastic. Here’s why, based off the methodology published in Moore et al’s 2001 paper in Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Read the rest of this entry »


The law of unintended consequences strikes China’s plastic bag ban

June 9, 2008

Jocelyn Ford of the the Science Friday blog lives in Beijing, and she has posted an account of the on-the-ground repercussions of China’s plastic bag ban. China banned extremely thin single-use plastic bags, but not the thicker bags more common in the US. Ford admits that the new bag surcharge has made her more careful about bringing her own bags to the food market, but worries that banning thin bags has only led to more widespread use of thick bags:

Take my local hole-in-the wall shop that sells stuffed pancake (yum!) Until last week, the shop did takeaway orders in ultra thin bags less than 0.025 millimeters, or 0.00098 inches thick. It’s now upgraded– the shop not only uses thicker bags, it’s ordered bags with the shop name on them. The shopkeeper proudly told me they were “environmentally friendly.” Looks to me like the new regulation has encouraged him to add to the garbage and pollution problem. The tiny bags are not easy to reuse.

In a classic case of the law of unintended consequences, Ford says that many shops have also started to give away free paper bags, which create more air and water pollution than plastic bags. (It’s true! See this handy chart from the Washington Post.) Ford believes that China should have legislated biodegradable bags – except, as she point out, they are made from corn.

So are biodegradable bags a solution? The corn starch bags Ford mentions are still under development, and they are based off ethanol biofuel byproducts. Since corn ethanol biofuel has proved to be food-price debacle, this is probably not the solution. Most commercially available biodegradable bags are based off a mixture of corn starch and petroleum-based polyesters. While they do biodegrade (which does solve the problem of cute large animals choking and drains clogging), it means that biodegradable bags are both competing with food supplies and polluting the environment with tiny molecular- and cell-sized bits of polyester. Little bits of plastic can be a huge problem at the base of the food chain, due to accidental ingestion by non-charismatic but ecologically critical animals like insects and earthworms

I still think that plastic bag bans are a move in the right direction, but Ford’s anecdotes about the Chinese ban show that a nuanced approach may be necessary. Should all disposable bags, including paper, be taxed? How can the Chinese government encourage people to reuse bags instead of simply switching types of disposable bag? And what approach might the US (when we finally catch up with Ireland, Bangladesh, and South Africa) take to control the plastic problem?


By “research cruise” to the North Pacific Trash Gyre we meant “Technology beta test”

June 4, 2008

So the trouble with all the news about the North Pacific Trash Gyre — and I do mean all of it — is that it stems from a single source: the Algalita Foundation. Captain Charles Moore and his team have done cruise after cruise, taken all sorts of photographs, and written a lot of reports. They’ve hosted reporters from all over the world, including the Los Angeles Times and Vice Magazine. But they’re still a single organization with limited scientific expertise. So I was pretty pleased to learn back in November that NOAA would be organizing a full-scale research cruise out to the gyre using snazzy new unmanned planes, too. Science AND technology – my favorite!

Unfortunately, that’s not really what NOAA is doing. I called Holly Bamford, the program director for NOAA’s Marine Debris Program yesterday, just to see how everything was going with preparations (Bamford was quoted in the original San Francisco Chronicle article I read). She said they’re engaged in a two-fold plan, only one part of which has to do with the trash vortex directly. The first part is actually a test of the unmanned planes. In April they conducted a test flight in which the drone launched form a ship and flew 100 feet above the water looking for ghost nets. When it saw a big piece of debris, it took a picture, recorded the location information and transmitted the data back to the ship. But Bamford freely admits this technology won’t do much to add to our knowledge of the gyre because much of the gyre’s plastic debris is pellet-sized or smaller, and it often sits below the surface. And although the ship itself was doing a great deal of additional research, none of it was gyre related.

Bamford told me they’re not planning a cruise to assess the gyre at the moment. What they are doing is co-hosting a conference this fall (no date set) with the University of Washington-Tacoma.

“NOAA is going to host a workshop some time in the fall, bring together the best scientists across the world,” Bamford said. “These are scientists from Japan, Europe, America, and they’ll discuss the occurrence of micro-plastic in the ocean, what are the impacts by uptake of organic pollutants, and other questions. This is a big question, we want to investigate the overall problem. We are doing that.

In the meantime, I also have a call in to the engineer managing the test of the drones. I’ll report back if I learn something interesting.


Plastic-munching bacteria isolated by high school student

May 25, 2008

Isn’t it nice when reality follows a TOG discussion on plastic bioremediation? A high school student in Canada may have isolated microbes that degrade plastic bags. As far as I can tell from the not-so-coherent news article, Daniel Burd created a bacteria-friendly environment (warm, wet, and nutritious) and seeded it with ground-up plastic bags. He then isolated plastic-eating strains and cultured them together with plastic. The most successful strain reduced the plastic’s mass by 32%.

Of course (assuming Burd’s results are reproducible), there is a ways to go before we can have giant vats of plastic-munching bacteria. Bacteria that can easily be grown in small, liter-sized cultures are often difficult to grow on industrial scales, and some bacteria can produce nasty byproducts (like methyl iodide, a greenhouse gas). It’s impossible to assess Burd’s results based on a news article – maybe he’ll continue his hot streak and publish in peer-reviewed journal. Still, plastic eating bacteria! From a high school student! Very promising, indeed.

Thanks to Sam for the link.


So we’ve got this trash-filled gyre, right? Can we fix it?

May 14, 2008

Before Miriam posted her most excellent explanation of what the North Pacific Trash Gyre really looks like, I had a vision for how to clean it up: A multinational fleet of mighty ships, their prows split wide open to admit the polluted sea water, slurping it up into giant filters to pick up the plastic, and spitting out clean ocean out the back. I can see them trawling back and forth over the ocean until, eventually, some bearded guy in a yellow rain slicker and a sou’wester wipes his brow, turns to his first mate and says, “Ayuh, we finished cleanin’ the watah.” And then Miriam posted, and I learned just how difficult cleaning up a Texas-sized ocean of trash with plastic at multiple depths really would be. Alas.

So how do we fix it? Over at Blogfish, Mark Powell lined up three proposed solutions: more recycling of plastic, ban the worst products, or a massive reorganization of our economy. In the comments, someone proposes plankton trawls, which is pretty close to my vision big ocean filtering boats. Unfortunately, there are serious problems with all of these ideas: banning the worst plastics might reduce the growth of the trash heap, but it won’t exactly clean up the mess itself. Same problem with recycling. I’m still keen on the trawl/ocean sucking barge idea, but there is that pesky problem of bycatch, in that you’d filter out any fish or plankton living in a marine area larger than Texas.

But then I recalled something about microbes that eat oil, when we have massive oil spills. Well, heck, plastic is made of hydrocarbons, right? Maybe there’s something that can eat plastic.

And thus I enter the fabulous world of bioremediation, the notion that we can fix biological problems with other bits of biology, most commonly by using bacteria to turn something toxic or polluting into something non-toxic or non-polluting. Back in 2005, Spanish scientists studied microbes that ate oil after a major spill off the Spanish coast. And recently some University College Dublin scientists evolved a bacteria to eat polystyrene, the main ingredient in styrofoam.

Now there’s companies that specialize in this stuff. A clean-up company called Ecochem claims you can use micorbes to clean up everything from the MTBE added to gasoline to fuel and oil spills that have seeped into the earth. I also found a fungus that eats certain hard-to-recylce plastic resins that get used in particle board and cars. So that seems promising, but I’m not sure fungus will do all that well in the water.

So, I’m afraid my search came up short, which isn’t too surprising, because if there was a plastic-eating microbe out there, we probably would have already set it to work on our landfills, let alone the gyre. Still, I have to think that if bacteria eat oil and styrofoam, then we can’t be too far off from finding one that will help us along with our plastics clean up. In the meantime, maybe those giant trawlers aren’t such a terrible idea?


The North Pacific Gyre is a video star!

April 8, 2008

David Meyerson from VBS.TV emailed me this video series on trash in the North Pacific Gyre. VBS sent a reporter, a producer, and a cameraman out on the ORV Alguita with Charles Moore of the Algalita Foundation (previously 1, 2, 3). The resulting film series is called “Garbage Island,” and is part of a larger VBS series on toxic pollution.

I have only watched the first episode of their 12-part series, but I strongly suspect they get to the gyre and find a soupy mass of plastic. Be warned if you’re at work – the density of F-bombs from the narrator rivals the density of plastic in the gyre. (Also be warned that this series may aggravate the latent hipster-loathing a hypothetical person might have developed while living in Brooklyn. But I digress.)

If you want to learn even more about the Algalita Foundation’s exploration of the trash problem, Dr. Marcus Eriksen will be talking at Scripps Institution of Oceanography next Wednesday, April 16th, at 12:15 PM. (set up by yours truly – *pats self on back*) His talk is open to the public, so any interested locals should come on by. Email me if you’d like more details or directions.


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