Expedition Plastic: Documenting ocean pollution

We know that each year 8-10 million tons of plastic are discarded into the ocean globally – equaling a truckful per minute. Where does it go?  What is the effect of this ocean pollution? Where is the plastic spreading and how is the situation in and around the areas of ocean that we first believed to be plastic islands, but which turned out to be soups of plastic?

This is what our Expedition Plastic has explored since it set sail on its global voyage from Denmark in 2014 and until today, where it is halfway around the world.

Alternating crews on the organization’s ship and researchers have documented and communicated the extent of the ocean pollution problem based on empirical evidence and personal observation, and we received confirmation that we are not dealing with plastic islands as many people thought.

We know that plastic is led into five primary plastic soups by the ocean currents, accounting for an area roughly the size of Africa

The largest plastic soups divide into: one in the Indian Ocean, two in the northern and southern Atlantic Ocean and two in the northern and southern Pacific Ocean. Plastic Change has researched the two northern soups in the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean respectively, in close collaboration with universities in Denmark, as well as the US. We have also taken samples outside of the “soups”.

In practically all the samples – both in the world and outside of the plastic soups we have found either larger or smaller amounts of microplastic.

Watch our research on ocean pollution in the plastic soups:

All of the data has been shared with the American institute 5Gyres, which collects data from the whole globe. It is calculated through modelling and schemas of how the plastic pollution is expanding in terms of amounts and areas. The documentarian and photographer Chris Jordan, who is recognized for a range of well-known photographs of albatrosses with plastic in their stomachs, joined Expedition Plastic for a segment of their journey.

On all portions of our expeditions we have documented these problems for future use in academic journals, debates and feature articles, blogs, lectures, TV-documentaries and educational material. An important purpose of Expedition Plastic has been to create a greater awareness of the plastic pollution in the oceans.

Maps of the routes across the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean:

Expedition Plastic in Denmark

We have also travelled around Denmark to examine the Danish bodies of water for plastic. And there is plastic in Danish seawater.  Several samples from Expedition Plastic in Denmark, taken from Zealand in June 2016, has shown this.

See the report of the results from Expedition Plastic in Denmark her (Danish).

Two years later, we embarked on another expedition around the Danish waters, in cooperation with our Dutch sister organization By The Ocean We Unite, and plastic was present in all the samples except for two taken from Roskilde Fjord.

How we research in the plastic soups

On Expedition Plastic we study the amounts, types and sizes of the plastic that lies in the ocean. The specimens are gathered with a special net called a manta trawl, which collects the plastic in the ocean. In selected areas, 10 centimeters of the ocean’s surface is skimmed at a specific speed with the trawl. Altogether this can give us an estimate of how much plastic there is per square kilometer in the given area.

What we can say based on our current knowledge is that the amount that we find only constitutes about 1 percent of the plastic that we would expect to be floating on the ocean surface, when looking at the amount that is discarded and the density of the plastic types.

The samples are sorted into sizes of above and below 5 millimeters, just as they are categorized by plastic types such as Styrofoam, fishing lines, fragments, etc. We also take water samples to examine the smallest particles, down to 20 micrometers. This is relevant in order to evaluate to what extent the plastic is broken down and which of the ocean’s organisms can consume the particles.

The water samples are included in a large global database of plastic pollution. The results are published in scientific journals with 5Gyres Institute in the US, among others, so politicians can get evidence for and better resources to regulate plastic pollution.

From 2014-2018, our expedition has collected samples from several hundred trawls, often in areas not previously examined for plastic. One of our partners in this project was the Danish ship Nordkaperen (The North Cape), owned by Troels Kløvedal, who collected samples with a trawl in the summer of 2014 on a voyage from Denmark to Greece.

Watch a video on how Plastic Change is conducting research in plastic pollution in the ocean