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Sandra Pascoe

Sandra Pascoe displays the nopal cactus and plastic she developed.

On January 10, 1992, a container ship on the way from Hong Kong to the United States encountered a severe storm which washed overboard a number of large shipping containers. One of them contained nearly 30,000 bath toys branded “Friendly Floaties”; yellow rubber ducks, red beavers, blue turtles, and green frogs that began an impressive journey bobbing throughout the world.

While some washed up only two months after the incident in Alaska, others traveled over 15 years and nearly 17,000 miles to reach Scotland, Australia, and even the Arctic seas.

While the case of the Friendly Floaties attracted significant media attention, prompting a number of movies and children’s books, it also became a key tool for oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer. By mapping the date and location with which the toys reached foreign shores, Ebbesmeyer was able to develop a comprehensive map of ocean currents across the globe, enabling him to correctly predict that the floaties would reach the British coast in 2007 — 15 years after the 1992 release.

However, Ebbesmeyer’s work proved informative for more than locating rubber ducks. It has been used to produce numerous simulators which can accurately track the way the sea’s motion affects marine migrations, plankton colonies, and other components critical for the oceanic ecosystem. Lately, however, the simulators have proven most useful to map the journey of ocean debris and floating patches of garbage.

It turns out that while ocean currents can carry objects — including bath floaties — thousands of miles, they can also form gyres: circulating currents that commonly serve as a collection point for pollutants. The so called “garbage patches” that result can be hundreds of miles across (some estimates place the Pacific Garbage patch between Hawaii and California at the size of Russia with 80,000 metric tons of waste) and contain pollutants ranging from improperly discarded fishing gear to miscellaneous toothbrushes or shoes, many of which are over 50 years old.

While the term “garbage patch” may conjure up images of thick, floating islands of rubbish, the “patch” actually exists at low density and is primarily made up of microplastics (fingernail sized or smaller) which form a thick soup extending deep below the surface. Despite the low density of the patch, Ebbesmeyer estimated that plastics in the region outnumber plankton six to one.

Garbage patches and microplastics in general are gaining increasing media attention, and for good reason. Over 10,000 marine mammals and an additional 1 million seabirds die annually from ingesting or becoming trapped in ocean plastics. Deeply disturbing images of dead sea life with exposed ribs and innards littered with visible pollutants are becoming far too common. Indeed, the Ocean Conservancy estimates that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 if we continue on our current route of material consumption.

There is a harrowing juxtaposition between the image of an army of colorful friendly floaties bobbing on international travel, accidentally alerting us to the spread of oceanic pollutants, and the insidious meshwork of microplastic goo choking our seas.

While garbage patches may seem far away — bobbing along far off the coast and not even detectable from overhead, we are beginning to realize their negative effects are uncomfortably close. Beginning in 2008, scientists discovered that microplastics accumulate along the food chain, passed on from zooplankton to aquatic life and the seafood we consume. This leads to an impact on countless ecosystems throughout the planet, including the soil we rely on for food and the reservoirs from which we drink.

And unfortunately, microplastics do not pass harmlessly through the gut as once believed but can ride through the circulatory system to leach various toxic compounds and physically jab and rub against organs. A study in April 2018 found that microplastics and microfibers (materials that slough off of synthetic fabrics, including fleece jackets) are in products ranging from bottled beer and water to sea salt.

Just last month, the first study on human consumption of microplastics estimated that the average person breathes and eats a combined 100,000 particles of them annually, although the true number is expected to be many-fold higher. Remember that plastics are still a new invention, developed in the early 1900s: their full range of effects on organ systems and the body is almost entirely unknown.

Overall the situation appears grim as we see plastics come full circle: from mismanagement of human waste that has resulted in garbage patches and choked ecosystems, now to the infiltration of microplastics and fibers back into the human body. As we continue to pollute the environment, it seems that we are being polluted in turn.

In response to the enormous problem of plastic pollution, many researchers are searching for ways to safely remove and store plastic waste from the oceans. Of course, key issues remain in these efforts: even if we collect all this plastic, where will we store it for the estimated 500 years to break down — and will “broken down” plastic be any better or safer than microplastics?

To completely halt the use of plastics, other researchers are searching for biodegradable alternatives. Sandra Pascoe, a researcher at University of the Valley of Atemajac in Zapopan, Mexico, recently produced one of the most promising alternatives. The biotechnologist and engineer discovered that the nopal cactus (Opuntia cacti, called prickly pear in the US) produces a juice that can be combined with additional waxes and sugars and then dried to produce thin sheets of biodegradeable, edible plastic.

After initial success, her project now has outside funding to perform additional tests on the strength and breakdown of the new material which may be used as an alternative to plastic bags and food packaging — which makes up the majority of the estimated 220 pounds of plastic the average person in the US consumes in plastic annually.

All in all, if we want to remove plastics from the oceans and prevent them from entering our oceans or our bodies, we will have to make dramatic changes in all levels of society. Trying to use fewer single-use plastics (such as zip lock and plastic bags), looking for cardboard or glass alternatives to products (such as using boxed laundry detergent), participating in neighborhood or beach clean-up events, and ensuring that plastic you do use ends up in a contained recycling bin are all important ways to prevent further damage to the environment — and to yourself.

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Hannah Margolis is an undergraduate researcher at Dartmouth College. She can be reached at Hannah.K.Margolis.20@dartmouth.edu.

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