Team Turn the Tide on Plastic finished last in the 2017-2018 Volvo Ocean Race, but its crew collected key scientific data during the grueling contest that provides a first-ever look at the scope of the ocean plastic pollution problem.
The team’s Volvo Ocean 65 monohull carried special sensors that were dropped into the ocean at various points throughout the round-the-world race. During stopovers, these samples were sent to a German lab that found microplastic particles nearly everywhere, including the most remote corners of the Southern Ocean.
Data collected during the first eight legs of the race were unveiled in Newport, R.I., in May during the Ocean Summit held in the race village.
“We’ve found microplastics, sadly, in nearly all of our samples,” Soren Gutekunst, a marine biologist at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, told the audience. “This shows how pervasive and vast the problem is already.”
Other scientific equipment on board the yachts collected data about ocean currents, surface temperatures and ocean acidification, among other things. The sensors used to collect microplastic data were roughly the circumference of a soda can.
Ocean plastic pollution is a growing problem with many causes and no easy solutions. Plastic production worldwide has increased 20-fold in the last five decades, and it is projected to double again within 20 years.
More than 90 percent of the plastic that enters the world’s oceans comes from 10 major rivers, according to Dr. Lisa Svensson, director of Ocean at UN Environment, and eight are located in Asia. Coastal waters of China and other Southeast Asian countries yielded dense levels of microplastics in the water.
Insufficient sewage and waste management infrastructure is the leading cause of plastic pollution, she said. Over time, that plastic breaks down to “microplastic” particles smaller than 5 millimeters. Some estimates suggest more than 50 trillion of these particles exist in the oceans.
Plastic waste in the world’s oceans remains a major ecological issue. Volvo Ocean Race boats used their path around the world to gather data on the problem.
“That also showcases the connection between land and ocean, and if we don’t take care of the waste, it goes through the rivers and it gets out into the ocean,” Svensson told the audience during the Newport event.
Studies have shown more than three-quarters of all plastic waste produced in China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines is not managed properly. The same is true in Nigeria and Senegal, two fast-growing economies in Africa. The U.S. and E.U., by contrast, mismanage only a tiny fraction of their plastic waste, although they also produce much more of it.
While many people are aware of the “gyre” of plastic waste swirling around the Pacific Ocean, they probably do not realize that microplastic affects marine life at all levels of the food chain. Dr. Rashid Sumaila, a professor at the University of British Columbia, said zooplankton see microplastic in the water and eat it, believing it to be food. This contamination continues all the way to people who consume fish.
Major sources of plastic in the ocean include cigarette butts, shopping bags, drinking bottles, fishing nets, straws and large containers such as gas cans. Different plastics fall to different levels in the water column, making cleanup impossible.
There are several processes in place to stem the tide of plastic pollution, starting with programs at the United Nations. Individual governments are pledging action, including many of the G7 industrialized nations, not including the U.S. or Japan. India recently announced plans to ban single-use plastics by 2022.
Volvo Cars, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are among the big corporations that have pledged to reduce plastic in their products. Other firms are experimenting with different materials for single-use items that biodegrade. Plastic recycling offers another option to prevent plastic from entering rivers and oceans, and consumers can make informed choices to reduce plastic waste.
In the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration runs the Marine Debris Program aimed at preventing or removing trash from key waterways.
Taken together, Sumaila said, these efforts could have an impact.
“Plastic is one of multiple stresses on the system, and I think plastic is one we have a really good chance of dealing with,” he said, adding, “We can take plastic out without reducing our quality of life.”