Is there really a floating Pacific garbage patch?

Floating plastic debris (copyright@vortexswim)

Every Thursday, interesting folk visit us at The European Centre for Environment & Human Health, to tell us about their research. With pollution always front and centre of our minds, the room was packed out to hear about microplastics from Dr Adam Hill.

80 days at sea with Ben Lecomte

Adam is a doctor with a mission to understand the potential health implications of using plastic. At medical school he started investigating how a chemical called BPA, found in things like plastic food containers, can harm the human body. Who would have thought this would take him from Cornwall to half way around the world. He shares a tale of his voyage:

Photo of Dr Adam Hill (image copyright@vortexswim)
Photo of Dr Adam Hill (image copyright@vortexswim)

“Ever since hearing the words ‘don’t microwave your food in plastic’ I decided to investigate why, so it became my specialism. I’ve always had a sense of adventure too, so applying to be the medic and photographer for the Great Vortex Swim Expedition was a no brainer. But being accepted onto the team was mind blowing.

I was to spend 80 days at sea on a small boat with ten strangers. Together we would support Ben Lecomte on his expedition. The goal was to turn the media spotlight from his previous record breaking ocean swims to document plastic pollution in the ‘great pacific garbage patch’.”

Ben Lecomte asks "Colgate is this yours?" Image copyright@vortexswim
Ben Lecomte asks “Colgate is this yours?” (Image copyright@vortexswim)

Building a floating hospital

“The Expedition wanted to go into the unknown and swim through the so called ‘island of plastic’ off the coast of Hawaii, described by the media as the size of Texas.

I stocked up our floating hospital with medical supplies. We’d be hundreds of miles from civilisation, with limited reserves and only a distant satellite connection for help. I’d need to monitor Ben’s temperature and calorie intake like a hawk. Especially as his body endured the relentless exertion of swimming eight hours a day. Not to mention, braving bad weather and plummeting temperatures, as his fat reserves run low.”

Ben Lecomte one one stretch of the Great Vortex Swim (copyright@vortexswim)
Ben Lecomte swimming a stretch of the Great Vortex Swim (image copyright@vortexswim)

Chunky plastic soup anyone?

“We know that over 8 million tonnes of plastic enters the world’s oceans each year. Poor infrastructure on land means that waste ends up in our seas following huge climate events like monsoons and tsunamis. As this plastic breaks down and fragments, the build up increases and becomes harder to identify.

So rather than a garbage patch, it’s more like a chunky soup with bigger pieces floating in a chowder of smaller fragments.”

Polluting the seas with every clothes wash

β€œSmaller still are the microfibers released from our clothes. The processed polymers from nylon and polyester release with every wash. Hundreds of thousands of fibres escape. Where is it all going and what harm is it doing?

As you can imagine this is hard to capture through a lens. Working with researchers back on dry land, our goal was to repaint the picture using images of what we found in the water, alongside drone footage and satellite images.”

Counting plastic pollution

“Every day we’d get off the boat into the dinghy and escort Ben as he swam. Those of us back on the yacht would tow a manta net to pull samples from the water. We’d photograph and categorise the samples back on board using filters to isolate micro plastics.

All the while Ben continued to clock up the miles towards his 300 nautical mile target, a number used to represent the 300 million tonnes of plastic waste produced every year.

It’s not just our domestic waste. There’s a monstrosity of unsustainable pollution from the fishing industry. The abandoned nets drift like icebergs, collecting their own tangle of debris.

Every hour of every day Ben came face to face with this mix of pollution, sometimes swimming through currents of plastic that covered his face.”

Image of fishing nets floating by the Icebreaker boat (image copyright@vortexswim)

Plastic marine life

“We had a duty to not only document plastic but also how it interacted with sea-life. Every encounter was special. A rare moment to revel in the life that we rarely consider when throwing away daily consumables.

“We saw first hand that plastic is creating an entirely new biosphere or plastosphere of man made homes for oceanic life, including in the tangled fishing nets. The plastic attracts animals like the albatross who hunt by colour.

“The juxtaposition of seeing a finn whale over 70ft long swimming beneath you as you try to photograph the horror of fragmenting plastic will never be lost on me.”

Samples of plastic extracted from the ocean (image copyright@vortexswim)
Samples of plastic extracted from the ocean (image copyright@vortexswim)

Is there any hope then Adam?

“This isn’t a fairy-tale so yes it is pretty bad I’m afraid, it’s a case of saving what we can.

“In total we counted 46,000 pieces of plastic, spent 146 hours conducting marine debris observations and filtered 3 litres of water a day for 80 days. The hope is that this collection of data and the raising awareness in the media will help us better understand the impacts of plastic in our oceans.

“One thing I do know for certain is that we all have choices about how much plastic we choose to use and refuse in our everyday lives.”

Read more about the Expedition on the National Geographic website.

You can buy a Microfibre-catching washing bag online or from local shops like Finisterre.

Read my blog post for 13 ways to reduce your ‘plastic footprint‘.

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