Queen's University

Student piles up plastic proof of ocean pollution

 
2009-06-02

After sailing 40,000 kilometres around the world and conducting studies in16 countries, Civil Engineering graduate student Bryson Robertson says the verdict is in on his international quest to catalogue ocean garbage – and the picture isn’t pretty.
 “The database we’re accumulating, along with our own first-hand accounts of beaches, presents irrefutable evidence as to the polluted state of our oceans,” says Mr. Robertson, who is using the multi-year voyage to complete his PhD. “It’s a global problem requiring global co-operation.”
Called the OceanGybe Global Research and Outreach Expedition, the Queen’s research project is documenting and recording the effects of marine pollution, as well as studying the effects of topography on the breaking characteristics of ocean swells. The crew departed from Mexico on their boat, Khulula, in May 2007 and spent most of the year sailing across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand, where they spent the winter. In the spring of 2008 they continued their journey to Indonesia, and in October headed west across the Indian Ocean to South Africa.
On a tiny atoll 1600 kilometres west of Bali and down current of Indonesia, the team discovered some of the most polluted beaches of their trip. Despite the fact that more than 1000 residents along the coral reef produce very little garbage themselves, the beaches are ankle deep in sandals, water bottles, plastic toys and other items of 21st-century consumerism, Mr. Robertson reports – all carried downwind from Indonesia.
“Standing on what should be one of the most pristine beaches on earth, watching garbage and plastic refuse wash up the beach in the shore break, will forever be etched in our minds,” he says. “No matter how much they cleaned up the beach, the ocean spilled forth more and more plastic jetsam and filled the cleared areas with new plastic trash.”
After a whirlwind two-month stay in South Africa, during which the crew spoke to more than 3,000 students high school in Cape Town, Khulula set sail again, this time crossing the Atlantic Ocean. They dropped anchor at a UNESCO protected national park in a Brazilian archipelago called Fernando de Noronha, where local researchers showed them the effects of plastic pollution to the turtles, dolphins and protected mangroves on the island.
“During a10-kilometre beach clean-up walk, we discovered plastics from all over the world,” says Mr. Robertson. “It illustrated the fact that, due to their equatorial location, Fernando becomes the resting place for garbage from both the northern and southern hemispheres, as well as the eastern and western Atlantic.”
Recently the OceanGybe has teamed up with a researcher at the International Pellet Watch Program based out of the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. This lab analyzes types and quantities of organic pollutants that are trapped in plastic pellets as an indicator of ocean pollution. The OceanGybe crew will send collections of PET plastic pellets to be analyzed, as they continue their own international pollution probe.
OceanGybe updates can be found on the team's web site.

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