Atlantic Ocean

A Plug for Trash Free Waters

By Annette Poliwka

Ocean samples collected on board the Mystic found plastic throughout the 3,000 mile journey.

Ocean samples collected on board the Mystic found plastic throughout the 3,000 mile journey.

My love of recycling, or better said, my hatred of trash led me to a research expedition through the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, a portion of the Atlantic Ocean that traps man-made debris.

My interest in recycling really began in the 7th grade, when I realized how the newspaper my father read stacked up on the porch until I could carry it to my parochial grade school for recycling. Yes, those were the days when we learned about current events by reading the paper, not our tablets. And those were the days prior to curbside recycling in major cities. I knew there had to be a better way, and I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up: protect the environment. I guess you could say, I’m living my dream.

The 5 Gyres Institute sails around the world collecting samples and conducting analysis of plastic pollution in our oceans. My experience began with a flight to Bermuda where I boarded a 172 foot, three-masted schooner named the Mystic. The boat had already sailed from Miami to the Bahamas, and our final destination was back to New York City! I was in the middle of paradise, along with other “Zero Wasters,” researchers and dedicated environmentalists, collecting samples of plastic pollution and figuring out how to prevent them from getting into the water in the first place.

The research included sampling the sea surface for the 3,000 mile journey. Micro-plastics, which are smaller than a grain of rice, were found in each sample. In the middle of paradise, in the middle of the ocean, and in the middle of the New York City harbor, we were consistently finding plastics. What is often described as an “island of trash,” is more of a “plastic smog.” The sun and waves shred larger pieces of plastics into micro-plastics, which can be a variety of colors and sizes. Fish can’t distinguish between a 3mm piece of plankton and a 3mm piece of plastic. We caught a fish and dissected it, finding plastics in its stomach. This is a human health concern, as plastics can transfer toxins into fish and up the food chain.

A water sample taken this summer in the NYC Harbor contains a wide variety of plastic pollution.

A water sample taken this summer in the NYC Harbor contains a wide variety of plastic pollution.

As we sailed to New York City, the samples of plastics we collected were bigger and more easily identifiable than what we found in the open ocean. This makes sense, as 80 percent of the plastics in our oceans are land-based, and it takes time to break down into micro-plastics. The samples also stunk of sewage!

Our use of plastics affects our waterways, the fish we eat and the general health of our oceans. Researchers have found that experiences, rather than material consumption, make people happy. So rather than buying the next new gadget, spend time doing something interesting, with someone you love. Your wallet and our oceans will be happier, too.

We can all help prevent waste by buying less and reusing what we have. If you live in New York City, recycle with the blue and green bins. Compost with the brown bin, or bring food scraps to Green Markets all around the city, year-round.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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One Man’s Trash Another Man’s Treasure

Greetings from New England!Each Monday we write about the New England environment and way of life seen through our local perspective. Previous posts

By Phil Colarusso

A shelf in my home holds old bottles, pieces of broken china and a porcelain imported mustard jug, treasures I found while diving. If I had found any of these objects on the street, I would not have bothered to pick them up. The fact that they were underwater added mystery and value to each of them.

In the sea, sunken vessels, railway cars, surplus army tanks, airplanes and a whole host of other things very quickly turn into artificial reefs. The sea and the life in it quickly claim as their own just about anything that humans have placed in it. I do not advocate dumping trash in the sea, but the ocean does seem to possess a remarkable redemptive quality.

The Atlantic Ocean has more than its share of discarded tires, which eventually become home to a variety of creatures. Lobsters, crabs, sea stars, sea urchins and a variety of small fish will happily live in the steel belted radial. The tire no doubt provides refuge from predators, waves and currents.

The most unique use of a tire I‘ve seen was by a male lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus). The cartoonish lumpfish is about the size of a football. With seemingly undersized tails and pectoral fins, they resemble miniature Goodyear blimps. Large suction disks on the belly allows them to adhere to surfaces. They are awkward, slow swimmers, and come in a variety of colors. Lumpfish, predominantly found among large rocks that support macroalgal and kelp growth, spend days moving as little as possible among the kelp looking for worms, crustaceans, mollusks and small jellyfish. On occasion they actively forage, but generally prefer to ambush prey. They will remain motionless, securely attached to a surface until some unsuspecting creature comes within range.

While collecting samples in an eelgrass bed, I saw a tire in the meadow. On the edge of the tire sat an adult lumpfish, a surprise since adult lumpfish aren’t normally associated with eelgrass. The greater surprise was the large clutch of eggs found inside the tire. Female lumpfish lay up to 150,000 eggs, then leave them with the male until they hatch. The male guards the nest and blows water over the eggs to aerate them. We backed away and allowed the male to maintain his vigil undisturbed.

Back in my office, I Iearned scientists have not identified the preferred spawning habitat of lumpfish in the Gulf of Maine. I envisioned my next scientific paper: “Goodyear blimp fish found to spawn in Goodyear tires”. I decided the lumpfish’s secret was safe with me.

About the Author: Phil Colarusso is a marine biologist in the Coastal and Ocean Protection Section of EPA New England, and is an avid diver. He’s living the dream in Wenham with wife JoAnn, two kids, dog and white picket fence.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.