Researchers are finding that ocean currents carry plastic pollution -- cigarette lighters, plastic bags and other trash -- from the world's coastlines to the middle of its oceans. Two experts answer your questions on the impact of plastic ocean pollution.
Where can I find an accurate plot of the plastic pollution's location?
Barbara Mayer of Waimanalo, Hawaii asks
I don't doubt there's a marine debris problem, however, I believe we need accurate observations of its extent. Therefore, is there a source or reference to see an actual plot of plastic marine debris occurrence?
Holly Bamford responds:
Thank you for your question. All of the coverage on marine debris has helped to raise awareness of this very serious and pervasive problem. However, the public absolutely deserves accurate and objective information from which to base opinions and inform decisions and actions. That is why marine debris research is a priority for NOAA to help us better understand the true sources, impacts, and solutions to this problem.
Currently, there is no comprehensive map plotting plastic debris occurrence. Given the fact that marine debris moves with winds and currents, sometimes far from its origin, it is a global problem.
If there was a map, it would most likely include coastal areas worldwide -- monitoring and debris accumulation studies and survey results could be used. Of course, that is only the marine debris that can be seen or that is washing ashore. Studies are now also being done on marine debris that is more difficult to see: benthic (seafloor) marine debris (e.g., Monterey Bay, CA and the Gulf of Mexico), and microplastics and small plastic particles.
An accurate and quantitative tool like that would be very useful and through collaborative efforts, like the Hawaii Marine Debris Action Plan working group, this can be done on a state or local level as a beginning to fully understanding the occurrences of marine debris.
Charles Moore responds:
I have walked on your beach at Waimanalo many times and seen the plastic from the gyre accumulating on your strand line. I agree that monitoring needs to be accelerated, and our small foundation is the only one currently supplying any of the needed data.
However, the extent of the problem can hardly be overstated, as it is growing so rapidly. Since we first sampled the Eastern Garbage Patch in 1999, the number of pieces has more than doubled, and the ratio of plastic to plankton has gone from 6 to one to 46 to one. I wish NOAA would gather similar data to add to our knowledge.