The merchant marine needs to be involved

Written from Expedition Plastic in the Pacific plastic soup: Position 24.16,81N; 138.50,84W

We on Expedition Plastic are sailing in a soup of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of kilometres/(nautical miles) from the nearest landfall. Out here in complete no-man’s land, far from the sources we can control, when it comes to stopping the release of plastic, we spot the products from our daily life, a lid from a bucket, a shampoo bottle, a screw-cap and a fishing buoy.

We establish that there really is a plastic soup in the middle of the northern Pacific.
After days of collecting only a few pieces of micro plastic in our trawls we now see plastic pieces by the hundreds, when our 60 cm broad trawl has been submerged for an hour. We sail or rather surf on a carpet of plastic, with three or four meters tall waves from astern and a moderate breeze sending us towards Hawaii.

Compared to our latest expedition to the plastic soup near Bermuda we see far more products in the sea here between Asia and the USA –the worlds most plastic polluted marine area. The emerging question is how we can change this trend decisively. How do we break the trend of plastic pollution and convince the governments of the world that action is needed now, so that the oceans will not contain more plastic than fish in 2050?

I have a suggestion for that. Plastic Change has a suggestion for that.

First Generation Plastic Data

Today Plastic Change and our present Expedition Plastic are part of what I call “First Generation Marine Plastic Data”. We are one of a number of sail ships, led by 5Gyres and Marcus Eriksen, gathering and sharing data contributing to a joint set of data on how much plastic the oceans contain. It is the first major set of data collected on the plastic existing in the seas, but it is also a minor set of data based on a large number of voluntary efforts. It is often accidental where an individual ship collects its data. In other words it is not the ambitious, global, repeating set of data on plastic in the seas, which I think is necessary to seriously influence the governments of the world.

If we are going to influence politicians all over the world, we need a red hot annual report showing if we succeed in limiting the release of plastic to the seas by limiting the release from the land based sources. The challenge is to provide massive data and quick processing of samples and a professional presentation of data in a way comprehensible to any government.

“The Blue (Maritime) Denmark” in a leading part

The Danish merchant marine ploughs the oceans. Every day all the year round Danish ships navigate marine areas all over the world. In that way they form a potential for data, supporting my idea of gathering a global set of data far larger than what we collect by “First Generation Plastic Data”. The Danish merchant marine is capable of forming a basis for us to undertake the “Second Generation Marine Plastic Data”.

Plastic Change is in contact with a number of Danish shipping companies, contacts we intend to develop in the months to come. The shipping company “Norden” has initially confirmed a contribution. Forty ships are ready to supply data contributing to an annual set of data. This is a big step ahead, but there are still a number of pronounced challenges to be dealt with before we reach our aim.

Data from cooling water

DTU (Danish Technological University) Aqua has, during their expedition to the Sargasso Sea, tested what looks like a brilliant way of collecting data. By relaying the cooling water of the ship engine a successful gathering of data was performed on the voyage from Denmark to Bermuda. “Norden” agrees to implement the system on their ships and the shipping company is also ready to undertake the relevant education of the ship crews in order to handle the sampling. The union of marine engineers has shown interest in supporting Plastic Change. So far so good. Logistics must be established to make sure that the samples arrive at the right laboratory. Related to this the expert knowledge on handling data offered by RUC and others is interesting. This is probably the biggest challenge concerning this project.

Analyzing massive sets of data

Manual analyses of micro plastic samples are extremely time-consuming. In order to carry through the plan of producing sets of data hundreds or thousands of times larger than the ones we have now an effective, systematic and automated analytic method must be developed to demonstrate the plastic in the samples. We need to perform interdisciplinary research, where knowledge from cytology (cell research) and automated counting of particles might form a method. Perhaps we need to think completely differently. The challenge is clear. Thousands of samples from the merchant marine have to be processed, if the vision is going to be fulfilled.

Attractive red hot data

IBM and CBS (Copenhagen Business School) are leading, when it comes to handling massive sets of data. Their early interest in helping Plastic Change to implement project “Second Generation Marine Plastic Data” is an essential condition for our success. Data must be handled, protected, presented and updated annually in a way transparent to a government, an environmental authority and leading political forums such as the UN, World Economic Forum, the EU etc.

In other words it must be “delicious”/attractive. It must be clear, that with such data the world can measure the effort on land. Just like we in the climate field have global data reporting on how we succeed in fighting the increasing CO2 content (in the atmosphere) our second generation data will be able to activate political efforts simply by showing if the world succeed in “cracking the nut” called the plastic crisis.

Success takes close co-operation

Nobody wants to eat plastic, to swim in plastic or to be exposed to the chemicals released from plastic to the sea. No people want coming generations, our children, to grow up with a nature spoiled by plastic.
It is my vision that Plastic Change, in collaboration with the merchant marine, RUC, the Union of Marine Engineers, IBM and CBS and others and the necessary funding, should bring forward a suggestion to bend the curve of oceanic plastic pollution, simply by presenting convincing, annually returning data on the development in marine plastic pollution to legislators all over the world.