NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Is There a Garbage Patch in the Great Lakes?

This is a post by Sarah Opfer, NOAA Marine Debris Program Great Lakes Regional Coordinator.

Plastic debris in the form of fragments, bottle caps, food packaging, and smoking products are commonly found on Great Lake beaches. Here, marine debris has washed up at Maumee Bay State Park on the shores of Lake Erie. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Plastic debris in the form of fragments, bottle caps, food packaging, and smoking products are commonly found on Great Lake beaches. Here, marine debris has washed up at Maumee Bay State Park on the shores of Lake Erie. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch“—a purported island of trash twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean—receives a lot of media attention. Recent reports suggest that a similar garbage patch may be developing in the Great Lakes as well.

However, based on research we know that the name “garbage patch” is misleading and that there is no island of trash forming in the middle of the ocean. We also know that there is no blanket of marine trash that is visible using current satellite or aerial photography.

Plastic debris is found in Great Lake waters as well. This debris was pulled from a Lake Erie marina during a cleanup. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Plastic debris is found in Great Lake waters as well. This debris was pulled from a Lake Erie marina during a cleanup. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Yet, there are places in the ocean where currents bring together lots and lots of floatable materials, such as plastics and other trash. While the types of litter gathering in these areas can vary greatly, from derelict fishing nets to balloons, the kind that is capturing the most attention right now are microplastics. These are small bits of plastic often not immediately evident to the naked eye.

While we know about the so-called “garbage patches” in the Pacific Ocean, could there be a similar phenomenon in other parts of the world, including the Great Lakes? Recent research on the distribution of plastics in the Great Lakes has people now asking that very question.

The Great Lakes are no mere group of puddles. They contain nearly 20% of the world’s surface freshwater and have a coastline longer than the East Coast of the United States. Within the Great Lakes system, water flows from Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, the lakes furthest west and highest in elevation, east into Lake Huron. From there, it travels through Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River into Lake Erie. Then, some 6 million cubic feet of water pass over Niagara Falls each minute and into Lake Ontario before flowing through the St. Lawrence River and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Average summer water circulation patterns in the Great Lakes. Beletsky et al. 1999 (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

Average summer water circulation patterns in the Great Lakes. Beletsky et al. 1999 (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

This water flow influences circulation patterns within and between each of the lakes. Currents within the Great Lakes also are powered by wind, waves, energy from the sun, water density differences, the shape of the lakebed, and the shoreline. These circulation currents have the tendency to create aggregations of garbage and debris in certain areas, just like in the oceans. But, just as in the Pacific Ocean, this doesn’t mean the Great Lakes have floating trash islands either.

In an effort to better identify and understand how plastic debris is spread throughout the Great Lakes, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have partnered with COM DEV on an exploratory research project. COM DEV is a designer and manufacturer of space and remote sensing technology. Researchers are working with this industry partner to develop and test the ability of different remote sensors to detect plastics in the Great Lakes.

If they find the task is feasible and the trial runs prove to be effective, this work could be applied beyond the Great Lakes and across the United States. The NOAA Marine Debris Program, part of the Office of Response and Restoration, is engaged with and following the project. We plan to participate in the next steps of this promising effort. You can learn more about the project and a related workshop on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Sarah Opfer

Sarah Opfer

Sarah Opfer received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Bowling Green State University and was a Knauss Sea Grant fellow with NOAA in 2009. She is based in Ohio and enjoys having Lake Erie in her back yard! While away from work she enjoys cooking, reading, kayaking, dreaming of places she wants to travel to, and spending time with her family.


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Living in the Age of Plastic: Conserving Plastic vs. Conserving the Environment from Plastic

Plastic spoons.

Plastic of the “disposable” variety. (Alex Smith, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

Today, we live an era dominated by plastics—versatile, ubiquitous, “disposable” plastics. In this “Age of Plastic,” enter Odile Madden, a research scientist studying historic plastic artifacts at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute.

Using her training in materials science, Madden works to understand the materials—from their condition to their chemical composition—used in Smithsonian exhibits. She preserves these materials for as long as possible so that everyone who visits the museums can continue to enjoy these pieces of cultural history. The sensitive nature of the work demands non-invasive techniques that will not harm the artifact. It’s a cool job.

It also stands in stark contrast to environmental conservation, which depends on materials that break down quickly and do not stick around a long time. For example, an abandoned fishing net drifting in the open ocean will have a much lower chance of accidentally ensnaring marine life (“ghost-fishing”) if it breaks down quickly.

As a marine biologist with the NOAA Marine Debris Program, I work on the opposite end of the plastics spectrum from Madden. She and her team of cultural conservationists strive to maintain the integrity of valuable plastic artifacts, while at NOAA we’re trying to conserve marine environments by, for example, getting rid of plastic debris.

Madden’s continued interest in pursuing the technical and philosophical issues surrounding plastic use prompted her to coordinate the recent interdisciplinary symposium, “The Age of Plastic: Ingenuity and Responsibility.” Presentations covered everything from the space program’s use of plastics to the history of synthetic fibers. They also examined the challenges of preserving plastic in museums and of recycling plastics at the end of their lifecycles and had an open look at how plastics are perhaps indispensable in science and human health.

Nancy Wallace, program director for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, participated in an equally engaging panel discussion, where she highlighted the potential hazards of plastics that unintentionally end up as marine debris. (In other words, we brought up the negative side of plastics.)

Still, I walked away with two particularly refreshing perspectives from outside my world of marine debris:

  1. The difference between “conservationists”: Museums use “conservation” to mean saving materials, while environmentalists use “conservation” to mean saving the natural environment. Museums want the material to last as long as possible while we at NOAA would be happy if plastics degraded quickly into its molecular components: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. (The scientist in me needs to point out that the word “plastic” captures incredible variation in material type and structure. “Synthetic polymer” is more accurate, but alas, it doesn’t have public cachet.)
  1. The difference in values: The use of a material often defines its value. Materials that are meant to be art are arguably more valuable than materials used in life. Probably few people would disagree that there is an intrinsic difference in a resin sculpture housed at the Smithsonian versus the one-time-use spoon you pick up at the cafeteria. But we must ensure that materials are used and disposed of correctly, in ways that respect their value. Plastics are valuable— they were invented for a reason and serve a lot of fantastic purposes— but have become significantly devalued in today’s throw-away culture.
A cellulose nitrate Victorian Black Comb circa 1890.

A cellulose nitrate Victorian Black Comb (ca 1890). Celluloid novelties made to imitate precious materials such as ivory and tortoise shell were popular from about 1880 to the 1930s. (Smithsonian Institution Collections Search Center)

I’d like to draw attention to another, unfortunately ironic, conservation connection. In his keynote speech, Robert Friedel of the University of Maryland pointed out that in the early days of synthetics, objects were created to imitate natural materials. In part, this was done to stop poaching of hawksbill sea turtles for tortoiseshell and elephant tusks for ivory. I thought, how interesting: Materials once used to conserve nature now occur in such quantity that natural environments are at risk from them.

Nevertheless, it was clear from this symposium that people care: both about preserving museum artifacts and about the baby albatross that chokes on ingested plastic bits. There are so many different, equally valuable perspectives on the use of plastics. All of these perspectives are needed if we are to move forward, as a society, with a more thoughtful approach to material use and conservation.


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How Big Is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”? Science vs. Myth

While everything may be bigger in Texas, some reports about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” would lead you to believe that this marine mass of plastic is bigger than Texas—maybe twice as big as the Lone Star State, or even twice as big as the continental U.S.

For NOAA, a national science agency, separating science from science fiction about the Pacific garbage patch (and other “garbage patches”) is important when answering people’s questions about what it is and how we should deal with the problem. (For the record, no scientifically sound estimates exist for the size or mass of these garbage patches.)

Map of garbage patches and convergence zones in the Pacific Ocean.

Marine debris accumulation locations in the North Pacific Ocean.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Carey Morishige takes down two myths floating around with the rest of the debris about the garbage patches in a recent post on the Marine Debris Blog:

  1. There is no “garbage patch,” a name which conjures images of a floating landfill in the middle of the ocean, with miles of bobbing plastic bottles and rogue yogurt cups. Morishige explains this misnomer:

While it’s true that these areas have a higher concentration of plastic than other parts of the ocean, much of the debris found in these areas are small bits of plastic (microplastics) that are suspended throughout the water column. A comparison I like to use is that the debris is more like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup, rather than a skim of fat that accumulates (or sits) on the surface.

She’s not downplaying the significance of microplastics. They are nearly ubiquitous today—degrading into tiny bits from a range of larger plastic items* [PDF] and now turning up in everything from face scrubs to fleece jackets. Yet their impacts on marine life mostly remain a big unknown.

  1. There are many “garbage patches,” and by that, we mean that trash congregates to various degrees in numerous parts of the Pacific and the rest of the ocean. These natural gathering points appear where rotating currents, winds, and other ocean features converge to accumulate marine debris, as well as plankton, seaweed, and other sea life. (Find out more about these “convergence zones” in the ocean and a NOAA study of marine debris concentrations in the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone [PDF].)

Any way you look at these “peppery soups” of plastic in the Pacific, none of the debris should be there. The NOAA Marine Debris website and blog have lots of great information and references if you want to learn more about the garbage patch issue.

Next up, Morishige digs into how feasible it is to clean up the so-called garbage patches.

Looking for more information about the “garbage patches”?

*Updated July 10, 2012. **Updated Jan. 28,  2013 to correct a statement incorrectly identifying the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone as what is referred to as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”


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How Your Fleece Jacket Could Be Contributing to the Degradation of Marine Habitats

All links leave this blog.

When you pull your favorite fleece jacket snugly around you, you probably never think about how it could be contributing to marine pollution.

However, recent research has investigated exactly that, exploring whether synthetic fabric products (such as fleece) could be a potential source of microscopic plastic fibers in the ocean and on beaches.

While at University College Dublin (Ireland), lead researcher Mark Browne conducted an experiment which included washing fleece clothing and then counting the number of fibers left over in the wastewater from the washing machines. He found that one piece of clothing could yield nearly 2,000 plastic fibers in a single wash—which would wind up not only in the wastewater but eventually in the marine environment.

In a complimentary experiment, he explored whether similar plastic fibers end up in beach sediments. His research uncovered that microplastic fibers, mostly polyester and acrylic, are showing up on beaches across the world, whether samples were gathered near sites where wastewater was discharged or not.

In other words, teeny plastic fibers from your synthetic clothing could make their way to the ocean. Because synthetics (plastics) can persist for a long time and travel along ocean currents, the topic of microplastic pollution has emerged in the past five years as a cause for concern.

The premise and conclusions of Dr. Browne’s research are provocative. This study is one of the first of its kind to pinpoint a specific source of microplastic marine debris. Because of the complexity of the topic, we still don’t have good estimates for how much of this debris is out there and how it enters the environment.

Dr. Browne’s work is a good example of a hypothesis-driven research project that has filled important knowledge gaps in our estimation of what kinds of debris end up on beaches. It has implications for how we could prevent this source of microplastic marine pollution. His research is also timely—an international working group (GESAMP) has just taken up the topic of microplastic debris and will be performing a global assessment of its sources and impacts.

More than anything, this research points to the complex nature of marine debris. Who would have thought that plastic particles from our clothing could make their way into the ocean? Unfortunately, there is not a single solution that will fix all the problems associated with marine debris, but good science allows us to find the best options for dealing with them.

For now, wash carefully, and educate yourself and others on the issue of plastics in our ocean.

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