Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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19-Aug-2010

Contact: Science Press Package
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

The long-distance voyage of plastic



SSV Corwith Cramer with all her sails set.
Image courtesy of SEA/Roman Shor

Imagine you’re taking a boat ride from Bermuda, heading east toward the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. If you look very carefully on a flat, calm day, you might see little bits of white and colored stuff floating alongside. This stuff is plastic.

This floating plastic are interesting for two reasons. For one thing, we don’t really know what effect they’re having on the environment, but scientists are concerned. Marine life might be getting tangled up in larger plastic objects, or eating the smaller ones, or hitching a ride and traveling to new ecosystems. Or, the plastic might be affecting the chemistry of the ocean environment.

The floating plastic also poses a real puzzle, because some of it seems to be missing.

For the last 22 years, research ships have towed nets around regions of the Atlantic, right at the water’s surface, picking up debris. Then, researchers would sort through and count the plastic particles. Kara Lavender Law of the Sea Education Association and her colleagues have now analyzed those 22-years-worth of data, and they found that the amount of plastic being picked up by the nets has stayed pretty stable.



Plastic pieces, typically millimeters in size, are hand-picked and enumerated from a sample collected with a surface plankton net.
Image courtesy of SEA/Marilou Maglione

That’s weird, because during the last two decades, people have been making and throwing away ever-larger amounts of plastic.

Dr. Law and her colleagues have a few possible explanations for why more discarded plastic is not appearing at the surface of the open Atlantic Ocean. It may break up into pieces too small to be collected by the nets, or it might be sinking beneath the surface. Or, marine organisms may be consuming it.

More research will be necessary to determine what’s actually happening. In the meantime, one important thing kids can do to help is recycle those plastic containers!

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You can find more information about Dr. Law’s research at http://Plastics.sea.edu.

The journal Science will be publishing the research by Dr. Law and her colleagues on 19 August, at the Science Express website.