I sailed across oceans in search of microplastics – a new film charts my journey

In 2018, I sailed to one of the most remote places on the globe, the north Pacific. Despite being thousands of nautical miles from the nearest human settlements, I saw so many large plastic litter items, such as broken plastic buckets, floating past the boat. But this was nothing compared to the number of smaller, colourful plastic pieces my crew mates and I were collecting day after day.

X Trillion, a new documentary film being screened at independent cinemas around the UK, charts the progress of that 3,000-nautical-mile voyage across the north Pacific as I sailed from Hawaii to Vancouver as part of a pioneering all-women crew. This trip was organized by eXXpedition, a not-for-profit organization that runs sailing research expeditions at sea (and now virtually) to investigate the causes of and solutions to the global plastic pollution problem.

A week into this three-week-long voyage, we saw a huge conglomeration of nets, ropes and other plastic materials forming what is known as “ghost gear” – as this discarded, lost or abandoned fishing gear floats around, it aggregates into a bigger mass. This ghost gear can entangle, injure and even kill marine wildlife, including turtles which I have researched for many years. X Trillion trailer.

The four-metre ball of net debris I saw was far too heavy to pull up onto the eXXpedition yacht. Our team attached a satellite tracker to it and oceanographers at the University of Hawaii followed its progress as it travelled thousands of miles to an ever larger accumulation of debris. Eventually, this net ball was retrieved by a bigger boat on a cleanup voyage.

While the huge ghost nets were shocking, it was the sheer scale of microplastics that shocked me and the rest of the eXXpedition crew the most. Many people think of the great Pacific garbage patch as a huge island of floating plastic. But it actually looks like pristine open ocean until we looked closer and sampled the surface waters where we found thousands of tiny plastic pieces.

To sample microplastics in the surface waters, we used a manta trawl. With its metal wings and broad mouth, this net system resembles a manta ray. As it’s dragged alongside the boat for 30-minute periods at a constant speed of two knots, it collects tiny solid particles from the surface.

My job on board was to coordinate this data collection, help to standardize the sampling methods and make sure that microplastic samples reached our ten scientific partners around the world.

Samples from the manta net trawl allowed us to collect data about the abundance, type and potential sources of plastic fragments present in the north Pacific. Most of the plastic pieces we collected were hard fragments that can be mistakenly ingested by vulnerable marine animals like turtles.

One of the manta trawl samples we collected contained 507 pieces of plastic – that’s equivalent to more than half a million pieces within 1km² of ocean. A masters student at the University of Exeter, Lowenna Jones, analyzed those 507 pieces and found 28 different types of plastic polymers. This shows that plastic comes from so many different industries, applications and products.

close up of two hands with tweezers putting plastics into a tiny clear glass vile, metal grey sieve in background
Tiny microplastics were collected and sent off for analysis. Eleanor Church / X Trillion film, CC BY-ND

Lots of our data was sent to the 5 Gyres Institute in the US where scientists recently estimated that there are more than 170 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans – hence the name of the film.

Having studied the effects of plastic pollution on small juvenile turtles for my PhD, I shared my knowledge about the issue of plastic pollution and its effects on marine ecosystems to the 13 other members of the crew who had different expertise and backgrounds – some were designers, writers and teachers.

Seeking solutions

X Trillion aims to increase the knowledge of the plastic pollution issue and scientific research can help us build a more accurate picture of what’s going on in the open ocean. For example, harmful contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls – toxic industrial chemicals that are now banned – still persist in the environment. These can stick or adsorb onto the surface of the plastics. Once ingested, these toxic chemicals could cause further harm to wildlife.

woman with long hair sat at table looking down a microscope
Emily Duncan used a microscope to analyse microplastic samples retrieved from surface waters by the manta trawl. Eleanor Church/X Trillion film, CC BY-ND

Projects like eXXpedition can shed light on the effects plastics can have on wildlife. This information can be a catalyst for change when used effectively to inform and improve plastic pollution policy such as the global plastics treaty that’s currently being negotiated.

With greater awareness of plastic pollution, there seems to be an increasing drive to innovate. Clever new products are being produced, but more can be done to limit excessive consumption. As a society, we need to change the way we value materials such as plastics. Single-use plastics are still a big problem. Using a material that is designed to last forever just once and then discarding it makes no sense.

Hopefully, this new film about the eXXpedition voyage shows what the remote ocean really looks like and challenges people’s assumptions about what happens to common plastic items. If not managed properly, that plastic waste all ends up swirling around in the open ocean.

Humans have caused the plastic pollution problem so we can design the solutions to fix this. Everyone has the power to make a difference. That can be as simple as investing in a reusable drink bottle instead of using single-use plastic ones. My bottle has travelled the world with me for more than ten years – refilling it will have saved countless plastic bottles for going to waste. With lots more people taking small steps like this, we can help to prevent more plastic litter entering the waterways and ocean.

Emily Duncan is associate researcher, Conservation Biology, University of Exeter, UK.

Published under a Creative Commons license from TheConversation.com.