Failing the seven seas

Jon Sanders arrives in Fremantle after collecting water samples from around the world.

Microplastic clogging the farthest reaches

RESULTS from a groundbreaking research project measuring microplastic pollution in some of Earth’s remotest waters have started to filter in.

The research was linked to famed Australian sailor Jon Sanders 11th solo circumnavigation of the globe earlier this year, as he collected daily water samples while sailing through the Indian, Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Oceans.

The samples were tested for microplastic levels by internationally renowned Curtin University organic geochemist Kliti Grice and her team from WA-Organic and Isotope Geochemistry Centre. 

Microplastics are particles from degrading plastic debris, resin pellets and beads. The pellets are used in moulding plastic products and often spill into the ocean during manufacture or transport. Plastic beads are commonly found in cosmetic products such as toothpaste, body washes and facial scrubs and are too small to be filtered out by drainage system. 

Prof Grice’s team have found an average of 47 microplastic particles per cubic metre in the Indian Ocean, 32 particles per cubic metre in the Atlantic Ocean, and while the Pacific was at the lowest end of the scale with 21 particles per cubic metre samples are still being analysed and the Southern Ocean samples are yet to be analysed.

The Atlantic threw up the worst sample so far, with a spot 300 nautical miles off Brazil measuring around 300 particles per cubic metre. 

“It’s the first time these have been measured in remote parts of the southern oceans around the world,” Prof Grice said. 

Toxic

“It’s the first baseline of data for these remote areas, and it really shows that microplastics are present in these very remote regions. There’s been a lot of work done on shipping areas, or highly populated areas, but there’s not really a baseline study for the entire Southern Ocean.”

Microplastics are highly detrimental to marine wildlife. When consumed by plankton, crustaceans and small fish microplastics seep into tissue and accumulate. 

They come with toxic chemicals that head up the food chain until they find their way to our dinner plates. 

Research also shows plastics can fill a fish’s tummy and leave them feeling full, causing them to stop eating and starve to death. 

“The science is there; plastic is becoming a major problem, every effort will contribute to helping to deal with the issue,” Prof Grice said.

She believes people can make a difference through changes in their everyday life, such as reducing their plastic consumption, skill up on the best recycling, and join beach cleanups and campaigns.

“Citizen science, I think is very important actually; if everybody contributed a little effort to that, and maybe some of the things that are happening in Europe where they have these huge almost vacuum cleaner type ships cleaning up plastic. 

Awareness

“Implementing something like that around the world would actually help and reduce the problem. I think it’s making awareness, and maybe the governments can change policy in terms of how waste is managed ” Prof Grice said. 

“Plastic is very resilient and a lot of it can’t be degraded very easily.

“In future years perhaps it could be a chronological horizon in the sediment that represents our era, like the Anthropocene era, in many thousands or millions of years to come.” 

If humanity does not act soon we may go down in history as the polyethylene era.

Mr Sanders said during his voyage that Asiatic waters were amongst the most polluted he sailed through.

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