A group of scientists has set sail to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The study’s maiden voyage, from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands through the Sargasso Sea, is part of the 5 Gyres Project, which will launch a second sail across the South Atlantic in August. Participating in and directing the project are researchers Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, who have worked with Captain Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF), documenting the growing accumulation of plastic pollution in the North Pacific Gyre.

A group of scientists has set sail to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The study’s maiden voyage, from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands through the Sargasso Sea, is part of the 5 Gyres Project, which will launch a second sail across the South Atlantic in August. Participating in and directing the project are researchers Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, who have worked with Captain Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF), documenting the growing accumulation of plastic pollution in the North Pacific Gyre.

Eriksen and Cummins, who married in June, will work with AMRF to deepen their previous research focus, which has been to quantify floating plastics, including micro-plastic fragments consumed by fish. Now they’ll look at how this flotsam affects those fish to better understand the human effects of what the Los Angeles Times calls “one of the fastest growing segments of civilization’s toxic waste stream.”

While potential human health effects of marine plastic remain unknown, scientists already estimate that nearly half of all seabird species, all sea turtle species, and 22 species of marine mammals are harmed or killed by plastic waste, either from ingestion, entanglement or strangulation before the debris has been broken down into tiny fragments.

During their six-week transatlantic journey—the first of its kind—the couple will stop in Bermuda to lecture and to meet with U.S. Consul General Grace Shelton. On Jan. 28 they will set sail for the Azores through the Sargasso Sea, an elongated region in the middle of the North Atlantic surrounded by ocean currents which form another oceanic gyre. They expect to return to Santa Monica by mid-February.

In August, they will cross the South Atlantic Gyre, which stretches from Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town, South Africa. This is expected to be the first such voyage in some 30 years in the Southern Hemisphere.

Because plastic pollution at sea cannot be cleaned up by any practical means, society must stop the problem at its source, the researchers stress. They advocate legislation requiring companies to take responsibility for recovery and reuse of their products, including economic incentives to promote recovery and bans on single-use disposable products. Responsible legislation will also create tremendous opportunity for smart, innovative alternative products.

“We can’t recycle our way out of this mess, nor can we clean up what’s already out there,” Eriksen says. “We’re not looking at an accumulation of large chunks of plastic but a thin, diffuse soup of microparticles.”

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