Researchers map plastic patch bigger than Greenland floating in the South Pacific
A massive plastic patch larger than Greenland has been discovered in the South Pacific, and much of the waste is believed to have originated in New Zealand.
The discovery was made by a team of researchers led by Captain Charles Moore, and is vital to understanding the extent of plastic waste, he says.
Moore spent 180 days at sea, trawling a fine mesh net in order to discover the edges of the 2.5 million square-kilometre plastic patch, which sat around Easter Island and Robinson Crusoe Island.
"This area is enormous, it's heavily polluted with plastic fragments," he said.
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Full analysis had not been completed, but Moore said the pollution was as bad as he witnessed in the North Atlantic a decade ago.
Plastic was so prolific, Moore said the crew had to up the ante on what actually constituted a plastic patch, with the centre containing millions of fragments per square-kilometre.
Oceanographer Dr Erik van Sebille used data from thousands of drifting buoys to show how New Zealand's plastics added to the plastic patch, findings which were reinforced by the discovery of a fishing crate from a New Zealand company found floating in the area.
Beginning in November last year, Moore and his team completed the voyage a week ago, docking in California.
He said the South Pacific research had been neglected for years because of its isolation and lack of exploitable resources.
Van Sebille, from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, said the voyage filled a massive knowledge gap.
What troubled van Sebille most was not the amount of plastic in the oceans now, but how much there will be in future.
"On current trends, in the next five years we will be putting more plastic in the ocean than all of the twentieth century," he said.
"There's this tsunami of plastic coming our way, unless we stop the leakage, and close the gaps in our global waste system."
In May, 38 million pieces of plastic were found on Henderson Island, which is part of the remote Pitcairn group, 5500km east of New Zealand.
A study recently estimated nine billion tonnes of plastic had been produced globally since 1950, with only two billion of that actually in use. The rest was either in landfill, or sitting discarded in the land or sea.
The Government has been facing mounting pressure to take action on single use plastic bag use, and van Sebille said it was an important step, because of the speed they broke up, and how easily they were mistaken for food by turtles.
It was recently revealed that a third of turtles and seabirds found dead on New Zealand's shores had ingested plastic.
Sailors may not realise they are in a plastic patch as they sail through it, because by the time plastics reach the patch, it has broken apart.
"It's small, rice-sized pellets, and small fibres. Those, of course, are the most easy to get into the food chain, and most difficult to get out of the ocean," van Sebille said.
There are plenty of unknowns with ocean plastics, from how much there actually is, and its effect on the sea life that eats it.
"If you tally everything up, and combine all the data that's out there, you get something like there's 250,000 metric tonnes [floating in the ocean]. But the total amount of plastic going into the ocean is something like five million metric tonnes per year. So every year there's something like 20 times more plastic going into the ocean than is on the surface right now," he said.
"That means we have 95 per cent of the plastic that we just don't know where it is."
Van Sebille said the "precautionary principle" had to be cohered to, and the flow of plastics stopped, or we risked the health of the oceans.
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- Sunday Star Times