Emily Penn – The last time I was in a plastic accumulation zone – one of the ocean’s five gyres where the world’s waste collects – I was met by clear blue waters.
I was in the North Pacific, skippering an all-female crew, for the latest in a series of eXXpedition voyages. We’d been battling the weather for a week, feeling the full brunt of the ocean, and had finally arrived at the heart of the gyre. Plastic pieces bobbed alongside the boat, but we saw nothing like the swirling rafts of garbage we’d been led to imagine.
I have spent a decade at sea trying to understand the plastic pollution problem, and I’ve learned repeatedly that things are never as they appear on the surface. That day, we lowered our manta trawl into the water and analysed our samples. We discovered that each sample contained hundreds of miniscule plastic fragments, invisible from where we’d been standing.
Lifting our gaze from the onboard microscope and looking back out to sea, we suddenly saw the reality – a dense soup of tiny plastic pieces, also known as microplastics, for miles around. It changed everything. We watched albatross dive into the ocean, swooping for food we knew would be indistinguishable from plastic. It became unbearable.
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