The 5 Gyres Institute helped expose the presence of microbeads in some of the cosmetic products we use every day, influence change amongst corporations and legislators. Now, the group wants to see how much plastic is on our ocean floors. 

A group from the Institute set sail this week for the North Atlantic Subtropical gyre and the Sub Polar “Viking Gyre,” from Bermuda to Iceland, to study plastic pollution. Dr. Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres co-founder and research director, is the expedition leader and principle investigator, joined by 13 professional sailors, scientists, advocates, artists, filmmakers, photographers and journalists.

“5 Gyres is on the frontier of oceanic plastic pollution, conducting first-hand research to discover garbage patches around the world,” Eriksen said in a statement. “We’re working to both understand and communicate more about how plastics affect the ocean ecosystem, which brings us to monitor remote seas, like the area south of Iceland.  These waters are where microplastics, including the microbeads we found in the Great Lakes, likely find their final resting place. We’re going there to find out.”

The 5 Gyres Institute headed on the Viking Gyre Expedition this week. Photo credit: 5 Gyres/Facebook
The 5 Gyres Institute headed on the Viking Gyre Expedition this week. Photo credit: 5 Gyres/Facebook

The tiny beads often escape wastewater treatment plants to enter the planet’s waters.

“We’ll be studying the water column to look at plastics below the waves, as well looking at the toxins this plastic absorbs, what kind of fish are eating them, and how this might affect a major food source for humans worldwide,” Eriksen continued.

The Great Lakes expedition led to the “Ban the Bead” campaign and voluntary phase-outs from Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and other companies. This week, the State of Illinois announced a ban on the manufacturing and sale of products containing microbeads. There’s no certainty that the group will inspire that sort of change elsewhere once they return in July, but the explorers know what they are searching for.

“Though voluntary phase-out is a good first step, we realized that we needed to take a legislative approach to ensure that these plastic beads are eliminated from commerce,” 5 Gyres Associate Director Stiv Wilson said. “We’d love to see Bermuda merchants voluntarily phase out products that contain these beads, as a model for other island nations.”

The group is also exploring the subsurface distribution of microplastics, how plastics impact foraging fish and testing new collection equipment at sea. The researchers planned to gather information for other scientists.

“Research is costly at sea. When we have the opportunity to do our work, I seek collaborations with the global scientific network, collecting samples for my colleagues who concentrate on related fields of study to plastic pollution,” Eriksen said. “With these partnerships, we can further our scientific understanding of plastic pollution while managing the costs associated with data collection in the most remote parts of the world.” 

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