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Blog: Sailing to the heart of the plastic wasteland

‘The ocean is such a special place. We are all connected to it. Growing up along the Norwegian fjords, I spent all my summers on or in the water,’ says Kristine Berg (32).

After getting her master’s of science from the Norwegian University of Science & Technology, she became a circular materials consultant at Tomra Collections. This role prompted her to embark on a trip across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with a dozen other female scientists. The crew set sail from Hawaii last June in what was an exciting, sometimes rocky, maiden voyage. This is her story.

‘I sailed on board the Sea Dragon last summer to research marine pollution in the world’s deepest ocean – both chemical and plastic. Tomra was the sponsor of the 10th eXXpedition project and I went because I think it’s important to see ocean plastics with your own eyes. After all, before you can offer a solution, you need first to make sure you understand the problem.

We set sail from Hawaii on a windy, sunny morning on a 22m sailboat. It took us about three weeks to cover almost 3 000 nautical miles across the North Pacific to Vancouver, Canada. The actual destination of the expedition was the North Pacific Gyre – more commonly known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that stretches from about 20 to 40 degrees north of the Equator.  

Surrounded by blue

Throughout, we had to sail upwind in sometimes unexpectedly rough conditions but we made it across in time despite having to follow the wind rather than the compass most days. It’s funny, in Norwegian the Pacific Ocean is known as ‘the Quiet Ocean’. Let me tell you, and I learned the hard way, this is not the case! Especially as I had never sailed before.

We were in three teams working four-hour shifts. Regardless of conditions, we all did our bit in cooking, cleaning, sailing and the science. It’s hard to explain the experience of waking up twice a day in completely different worlds. Some days, we had such rough seas we couldn’t even boil hot water for tea, let alone use the bathroom in any comfortable fashion.

On others, we would wake up for graveyard shifts to see millions of stars across the sky and luminescent algae leaving a glowing tail behind our boat. Some were just wet, cold and miserable.

Micro flakes and toilet seats

We had already seen much plastic washed up from the ocean onto the beaches of the Hawaiian Islands. Once we reached the ‘Garbage Patch’, it was quite surprising to see it isn’t actually an island of trash with lots of floating plastic. We did see the occasional lawn chair, washing basket, tooth brush, take away menu – and even a toilet seat.

But it is actually a soup of tiny pieces of broken-down plastic that we could only see once we had passed the trawl through the water. The ocean looks blue and clean until you pull up samples with one thousand pieces of microplastics. Most are smaller than the nail on your little finger.

We collected samples and data for more than 10 different research programmes in the UK, Canada, Switzerland and the US. Our work included trawling for microplastics, visual registration of larger pieces of debris, surface water samples and testing for airborne micro-plastic contamination.

Life on Mars

We also attached a GPS tracker with NASA technology to a system of ‘ghost nets’ (abandoned fishing nets and ropes) to map how bigger pieces of plastic behave in the open ocean. As chemical pollution is also definitely associated with marine litter, we even tested our hair for mercury levels. Skipper Emily Penn found out that 29 of the 35 chemicals we tested for were in her system, possibly because she was eating fish.

The entire experience was surreal, like being on Mars and seeing flipflops and coffee cups flying around. It was hard to grasp the disconnect between the amazing beauty of deep blue oceans, dolphins and albatrosses, and knowing there are millions of pieces of plastic out there.

One of the most powerful moments came towards the very end of the trip, when I was at the helm. It was around 5am in the morning, the moon was setting behind us and I saw the sun coming up in front of us, burning a vibrant red. The wind was 40 knots and waves were 4-5 metres high. We had to keep the main sail reefed almost all the way down.

Waves washed over us with so much water that I once literally had to hold my breath as I ducked. But the boat rolled so beautifully through the waves and I felt so comfortable with my own ability to sail in those conditions. I was smiling like a little child. We arrived in Vancouver right on schedule.

Let’s take charge!

Based on what I’ve seen, I doubt that we will ever have plastic-free oceans. Plastic is the workhorse of our modern economy but we forget it takes hundreds of years to break down. We use plastic for a few minutes before throwing it away as waste. I have seen what ‘away’ looks like. Trust me, the plastic does not disappear as all materials have to go somewhere. Unless we stop dumping plastic in the ocean, we will spend the rest of our lives cleaning up our mess. 

All in all, though, I have to say I am very hopeful. Hopeful we can do better. This is the time to join those who are no longer sitting idly on the sidelines waiting for someone else to take charge. It helps that legislation is pushing for change and that market forces are really pulling for better resource management – particularly of plastic packaging. Ultimately, I think the biggest risk with ocean plastic is you and me thinking what we do doesn’t matter and that someone else is going to fix it for us. It’s up to us.’

This article was published in the last issue of Recycling International, as part of the Plastics Special. Read the magazine here.

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