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Scripps Scientists Discuss Expedition to Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Audio

Aired 8/31/09

Why is there a Texas-sized patch of garbage floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? How did the trash get there, and what can be done to remove it? We speak to a group of researchers who recently returned from a Scripps Institution of Oceanography expedition to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Not too many people feel comfortable leaving a litter-filled mess behind in a public place anymore. In fact, there are laws on the books and public pressure to clean up after yourself and take care of the environment. That is, of course, on dry land. Once you start talking about water, beaches, oceans, however, attitudes often change. The ocean is so huge, so wide, so self-sustaining, it can cope with a little garbage, can't it? Well, a team of researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography have just returned from seeing how the ocean is coping with our garbage, and their findings are not pretty. The Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition or SEAPLEX examined and took samples of an area roughly a thousand miles off the California coast called, the "Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch." It is located in an area known as the North Pacific Ocean Gyre. We'll hear what that location is, why the garbage has accumulated there, and what it's doing to both marine life and to us. My guests are Miriam Goldstein. She's chief scientist of the SEAPLEX expedition. Miriam, welcome.

MIRIAM GOLDSTEIN (Chief Scientist, SEAPLEX Expedition): Hi. Thanks, it's great to have us here.

CAVANAUGH: And Jesse Powell, is graduate student researcher on the expedition. Welcome, Jesse.

JESSE POWELL (Graduate Student Researcher, SEAPLEX Expedition): Hello. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Alison Cawood is graduate student researcher who coordinated the information for Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Alison, welcome.

ALISON CAWOOD (Information Coordinator): Thanks. It's nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And I want our listeners to know that we invite them to join the conversation. What do you think we can do about this plastic garbage patch in the Pacific? Call us with your questions or your comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Miriam, let me start with you. Tell us about the garbage patch. What are some of the basic things that we need to know about this?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, the important thing to know that we think is really interesting is how much is there, where is it, and what affect might it be having on the animals that live out there in the middle of the ocean. So – But it's not really an island or a – like a floating garbage dump that you can see with your eyes. It's actually a lot of little tiny pieces, lots and lots of very small pieces, smaller than your thumbnail with some bigger pieces like nuts and buckets floating around but it's not easy to see just when you're out there on a boat.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, that's crazy because I think people have this idea that it's just sort of like this, you know, this big garbage trough right – sitting on top of the ocean. But it's actually a lot more dangerous than that and we'll get to that. Tell us first off, where is it located in proximity to San Diego?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, it's about a thousand miles off the coast of San Diego in an area of the ocean termed the North Pacific Ocean Gyre. And that is a natural ocean feature formed by the trade winds and it circulates and it's sort of a clockwise slow whirlpool and it's driven by the trade winds. So almost the whole North Pacific, from Japan to California, north of Hawaii is part of this big slow whirlpool. And it's what oceanographers term a convergence zone. Things tend to accumulate in the center.

CAVANAUGH: Jesse, how did all the trash get there? Do we know where it all came from?

POWELL: Well, we're not sure where all the trash came from but the countries around the Pacific Rim are, you know, dumping plastic and other debris into the ocean through rivers and it all tends to go out into the ocean. And because of the convergence in the center of the gyre, anything that floats winds up there eventually if it lasts long enough to get there.

CAVANAUGH: So let me get – be clear about this. This is about basically beach refuse and ship refuse and – and for generations? Is that what we're talking about?

POWELL: Yes, and, well, there's not as much ship trash as there used to be. There was an international convention back in the '80s not to dump any plastic in the ocean, so probably more, proportionally, is coming from land now, although we still don't have a way to specifically track individual pieces back to their country of origin.

CAVANAUGH: No, because they're too small, right?

POWELL: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, okay. And, Miriam, can you describe what it is that you – First of all, what was your role in this expedition?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I was chief scientist, which is actually extremely unusual for a graduate student. And this is made possible by a fantastic program we have at Scripps Institution of Oceanography called the UC Ship Funds, in which graduate students are able to design and apply for to run our own cruises and through a competitive process. So that's how the SEAPLEX cruise started. It was myself and a team of seven other graduate students who got together, decided we were interested in this topic and wrote a proposal for the UC Ship Funds. So I was the coordinator for that and thus ended up as chief scientist on the actual cruise.

CAVANAUGH: So, Miriam, you were chief scientist. Jesse, what was your role?

POWELL: I was a supporting scientist, I would say.

CAVANAUGH: And, Alison, I believe that you actually stayed here in San Diego.

CAWOOD: Yeah, I was originally part of the proposal that Miriam was just talking about and because I had to do my own work at some point, I did not go. But I coordinated the blog and got them all the things that they needed while they were at sea.

CAVANAUGH: How did they communicate with you while they were at sea?

CAWOOD: They had very limited internet. It was very expensive. In general, oceanographic cruises do have internet access but they were outside of the range where that happened. So they kind of crammed everything into one e-mail a day pretty much.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. And so you – and you were responsible for the blogging that took place…

CAWOOD: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: …on this. And it was very extensive. I mean, you really wanted people to keep up with this whole expedition…

CAWOOD: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …because that was part of it, right?

CAWOOD: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Having – Tell me what kind of outreach you wanted to have.

CAWOOD: Well, I mean, this is an issue that's very tangible. You know, some other things like global warming and things – they're – it's hard to wrap your head around. This is a very tangible issue. Plastic is produced by people and it's in a place where people don't go. And so we thought this was a great way to get people to be interested in ocean issues and to kind of feel like they could actually – you know, they could understand this. This wasn't too far away.

CAVANAUGH: We are talking about researchers who have just returned, Scripps Institution of Oceanographer researchers – Oceanography researchers who've just come back from their SEAPLEX mission to examine the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Darcy is calling from La Jolla. Good morning, Darcy, and welcome to These Days.

DARCY (Caller, La Jolla): Oh, good morning. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, hi. How can we help you?

DARCY: I was wondering, my – Well, I've heard a lot in the news that this patch is the size of Texas. Is that true?

CAVANAUGH: Okay. I suppose – I think we have some laughter here for – are you familiar with Darcy?

GOLDSTEIN: Darcy's actually my office mate at Scripps.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Okay.

CAWOOD: And was one of the scientists on the cruise.

CAVANAUGH: Ah.

GOLDSTEIN: She studies phytoplankton. Hi, Darcy.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, I mean, we were going to ask that question anyway but Darcy wanted to prod us along so I appreciate it. So, Miriam, it is – Is it the size of Texas?

GOLDSTEIN: We don't know. The North Pacific Gyre, as a natural oceanographic feature, is really big. It's about 20 million square kilometers. It's huge. But we don't know the distribution of the trash inside of it. The people who've done the most work on this issue is a nonprofit out of Long Beach called the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which is headed by Captain Charles Moore and they have gone out there for about ten years but they also have mostly gone to the eastern part. So we don't know, in this huge area of ocean, where the trash is or whether it is, you know, and how it might relate to Texas. It's one of the things we'd like to know.

CAVANAUGH: And Captain Moore, isn't he the one who originally found this garbage patch?

GOLDSTEIN: That's right. He discovered it about ten years ago on his way back from Hawaii in his sailboat.

CAVANAUGH: It's a little difficult to actually find, as you say. How did he spot that and what did it look like to him? And when you got there, what did it look like to you?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I'm not sure what it looked like to him then…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

GOLDSTEIN: …but I can tell you what it looked like to us. To me, anyway, it looked pretty much like ocean. I mean, it was this very lovely cerulean blue color and it – we had perfect weather so it was sunny and bright and very calm and nice. And so it all looked great. But every minute we would see – in the thickest parts, we'd see a big piece of something floating by. We'd see a bucket or some net or some unidentifiable bits. And then when you look at the water very closely when it was very calm, you could see these tiny little particles just floating along. And then for us, as we dipped our nets into the water, our various kinds which is how you measure things that are floating in the ocean, we would just be pulling up a large amount of this debris.

CAVANAUGH: And, Jesse, I heard that, in reading about this, that most of these little tiny plastic bits are just under the surface of the water? Is that the way they stand? They sort of just are suspended there.

POWELL: Well, most of the trash that gets out there is positively buoyant otherwise it would sink out before it gets there.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

POWELL: However, once it breaks down to smaller and smaller particles, there's enough plastic that is close enough to the buoyancy of water that with fouling and growth, it can just become just a little bit more dense and start to sink below the surface of the water a little bit and it gets mixed down by wave action. So that was one of the questions that we've started thinking about is how much is at the surface and how much is below the surface.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, what kind of impact does this plastic – tiny little bits of plastic soup here have on the ocean? Miriam.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, we would – This is something we would really like to know. We were focusing primarily on the smaller animals at the bottom of the food chain, so the microscopic plants and animals that support ocean life. So the plastic particles that we observed are about the same size as many of these animals that naturally live there. So in our nets, we would get both the animals and the plastic. So what we don't know is exactly how that might be affecting the animals that eat them, so, for example, the fish and birds that live out there. We – Our fish expert, a graduate student named Pete Davison and another graduate student named Rebecca Asch will be looking at the fish we caught and to see if they're ingesting the plastic. And we also have bird and whale observers to see – who are looking for how birds and whales might be associated with the high plastic areas. And the bird observers actually are also working on albatrosses on Midway. Those are some of the awful pictures that people might have seen of albatrosses ingesting the plastic, and he's trying to figure out how – what exact harm it might be doing to them.

CAVANAUGH: And the way they might have ingested the plastic is by eating one of these small creatures who's already eaten the plastic, is that correct?

GOLDSTEIN: That's possible. And with albatrosses, they are evolved to eat whatever they see on the ocean surface, so they would also be eating it directly.

CAVANAUGH: I see. We're talking about a recent return of the SEAPLEX expedition to the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch. I'm speaking with Miriam Goldstein, Jesse Powell, and Alison Cawood, three graduate students who were involved in the SEAPLEX expedition. And we're taking your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727. Kathy is calling from Ramona. And good morning, Kathy. Welcome to These Days.

KATHY (Caller, Ramona): Hello. I had a comment and kind of a question. Why don't we hold the companies that produce the plastics for dishwashing liquids, you know, everything that we purchase in the grocery stores, Starbucks, water bottles, whatever, I think that those businesses and corporations should have a facility either at the grocery store or whatever and that we could actually give the grocery store back the plastic that we consume. And not ingest but, you know, use.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

KATHY: And then – and why don't we hold them accountable if it's disregarded as just trash?

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, Kathy. That's one idea to try to get fewer plastics in circulation so that we – they don't end up in the middle of the sea. But I'm wondering, Jesse, what do we know about how plastics dissolve? I mean, they obviously don't biodegrade in the way that we understand biological materials to do it but how is that they get smaller and smaller? Do they actually get small enough to be on the microscopic level?

POWELL: Well, to the best of our knowledge, they're mostly broken down through mechanical and photo-degradation, so they're at the surface of the water being tossed around by the waves and constantly lit up by the UV in the sunlight, and that breaks it down into smaller and smaller pieces. And there's been some work showing, you know, plastic microfibers going down to, you know, very small dimensions, microns, and we're not sure of the fate, ultimately, of plastic in the ocean, how long it sticks around. How long does it take for a dishwashing bottle to break down, for example. There's been some work recently showing it might break down a little bit faster than we thought but it's still an open question.

CAVANAUGH: And, Miriam, there is a great amount of toxicity in what's used to actually make these plastics and in how they break down, isn't there?

GOLDSTEIN: Yes. There's just a study that came out through – from a Japanese lab showing that in the lab, mimicking ocean conditions, that toxins could be released from plastic. And this is one of the things that we're hoping to – that we're looking at with data that we gathered on this cruise. There are toxicologists, graduate – toxicology graduate student who came on the cruise named Chelsea Rochman, will be working on this. She's actually at SDSU and UC Davis. And so she has taken a lot of plastic and water and animal samples and she'll be looking for toxins in them.

CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating. Alison, I'm wondering, as you monitored what they were sending back, the dispatches that you received from them once a day, were you surprised by what you were hearing?

CAWOOD: I was. You know, we – Like when we were writing this proposal, we honestly had no idea if we were going to find the plastic, what it would – like we had no concept. And so to see some of the pictures that were coming back and some of their descriptions, I was really surprised.

CAVANAUGH: Because some of those pictures, I have seen a couple of them, and they showed what looked like barnacles or some kind of mussel attached to plastic water bottles and a plastic buoy. And I – What does that tell you, Miriam, when a life form is growing on a piece of plastic trash?

GOLDSTEIN: That that life form's really adaptable. Yeah, there were gooseneck barnacles which you can also see growing off of San Diego if you go play on the rocks. They are an organism that is really good at growing on artificial surfaces. And there are organisms that specialize in this, they're called Fallon communities and they grow on docks and buoys and pretty much anything. They're able to adapt to those sort of strange conditions. So one of the research questions that we're really interested in is how does putting all of these hard surfaces in the middle of an ocean where there shouldn't be any hard surfaces, there should just be water, how does that change the ecosystem? Or how might it change the ecosystem? Because gooseneck barnacles are not naturally going to be floating around in the middle of the ocean a thousand miles off California. Maybe a few of them on wood and things like that but certainly not in the densities that we saw. We saw a lot of those gooseneck barnacles. A lot of these little crabs were living on the pieces of debris we pulled up. On one buoy we found 75 tiny little crabs just living on it.

CAVANAUGH: And they wouldn’t normally just be living in the middle of the ocean.

GOLDSTEIN: These kinds of crabs would probably not be there in that abundance but that is an open question. We're really interested in studying them more.

CAVANAUGH: And isn't there also, Jesse, an issue that the idea of this plastic soup is going to take organisms – can perhaps make organisms be able to find a way across the Pacific in a way that they didn't normally? You know, tiny, tiny little organisms may – that only live in one continent might find a way to another continent and that might cause a whole host of problems?

POWELL: Right, well, that whole area's called invasive species and it's a big problem, especially more so with ships' ballast and other ways that invasive species get to our coasts or to other coasts.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

POWELL: And I'm not sure how – how important a vector this is, the plastic in the gyre, because once it gets into the gyre, it doesn't really leave the gyre.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

POWELL: But there is a lot of plastic, for example, coming from Asia to North America in the west wind drift, it's the northern extent of the gyre.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

POWELL: And then there's plastic going the other way, following the trade winds. But as far as how big an issue that is, it's still an open question.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Tiny little organisms could just jump on these little pieces of plastic…

POWELL: Yeah, and…

CAVANAUGH: …and sail on over.

POWELL: …and you have to realize that these – it takes months and months, if not years…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

POWELL: …for a lot of these particles to make their way across, so whereas ships, you know, they'll be across the ocean in a couple weeks and then they dump their ballast water perhaps.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue to talk about what we learned about the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch with our Scripps researchers in studio. I want to remind you we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. We'll be taking some of those calls when we return. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I'm speaking with members of a team of researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography who have just returned from seeing how the ocean is coping with our plastic garbage. It's the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition, and my guests are Miriam Goldstein. She was chief scientist for the expedition. Jesse Powell, a graduate student researcher on the expedition, and Alison Cawood, graduate student researcher. She coordinated the information from the ship at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography during the voyage. The number to call and join our conversation is 1-888-895-5727. And, Alison, you told us that you were keeping – you were making a blog of – from the information that you received once a day from the researchers on the ship. I'm wondering what kind of feedback did you receive from people here on dry land while everybody else was on the expedition?

CAWOOD: I was actually not at all prepared for the number of comments that we were going to receive. People were so interested. You know, we would have, you know, 20 comments a day on a given blog.

CAVANAUGH: Really?

CAWOOD: It was really overwhelming. People were really interested. They really wanted to know about what was going on. They had lots of questions. It was – it ended up being a lot of fun actually. I really enjoyed it.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I tell you, we have a lot of people on the line right now who want to get in on the conversation so let's take some calls. Jeff is calling from Leucadia. And good morning, Jeff. Welcome to These Days.

JEFF (Caller, Leucadia): Good morning. I was just curious if there'd been any studies done yet on how this floating plastic in the gyre affects sunlight, either absorption or reflection, and consequently affects global warming.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that question. Who would like to take it?

POWELL: I can take that. I don't think there's been any studies on that and just from estimating the amount of plastic that we saw, it's still only a small percentage of the area of the surface, so I don't think it would have a large impact.

CAVANAUGH: But, potentially, if this isn't taken care of, do you see that it might be a problem?

POWELL: I see it more as an ecological issue than a climate issue.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Okay. Let's take another call. And talking, Martin is calling from Escondido. And good morning, Martin. Welcome to These Days.

MARTIN (Caller, Escondido): Yeah, thanks for taking the call. My question relates to, well, given the magnitude of the problem per se, has there been any discussion about the possible reuse of that material that's out there? I mean, essentially you could set up a floating factory processing this material and recycling it and maybe even energy positive in that regard and, I mean, that's not without precedence. They do the same thing with lumber processing in the Pacific as well, so it's a potential way to get rid of it and actually, you know, make some use out of it.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, Martin, and Miriam.

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, well, our concern with removing the plastic is that it is same size as a lot of the animal life out there. So it's very hard to take out little pieces of plastic without taking the animals out, too. But on this project, we're very fortunate to be collaborating with a nonprofit group called Project Kaisei and they are looking at potential remediation strategies.

CAVANAUGH: And what strategies are they looking at? Do you know?

GOLDSTEIN: Right now, they're in the information gathering phase because they need the basic science that we have started on this cruise about how much plastic is there, what animals are associated with it, how big are the pieces in order to start thinking about the engineering involved.

CAVANAUGH: Because I really want to make the point again, we are not talking about something that looks like a landfill or just a pile of garbage in the middle of the ocean. What – It really doesn't look much different from the rest of the ocean casually, does it, Miriam?

GOLDSTEIN: No, it really doesn't. You really have to look carefully to see these little particles, or to – you have to put a net in the water. And it's very easy once you've put a net in to gather them. There's lots and lots. But you just – it's not like you see garbage floating on the horizon. The ocean just looks like ocean.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Sheila is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Sheila. Welcome to These Days.

SHEILA (Caller, San Diego): Yes, thanks for taking my call. My question is in regards to where the trash has come from. I recently met a family that – from San Diego that actually are missionaries in Papua New Guinea, and they described to me that the way that's common in the islands to remove trash is not taking it to some sort of local dump but it's very common for everyone to just take your trash in your boat and take it about two miles out from the island and dump it in the ocean. So I'm wondering if there's any way the researchers have been able to determine where the trash has come from and possibly how this might – we could prevent this in the future from happening from these maybe small island countries that don't have the structure in their communities to actually have city dumps or places or landfills.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that question, Sheila.

CAWOOD: Right now we have no way to tell where the trash is coming from. And Sheila makes a good point that this is one of the issues – this is an international issue. This is not something that one country is going to be able to deal with. You know, it's not even a place that a country has jurisdiction over. These are in international waters and so this is going to take not only work – I mean, it's going to take lots of work for lots of people. It's not something that's going to be fixed. You know, we can fix it in the United States but if you're not fixing things in New Guinea or wherever else, that's not going to – I mean, that's part of why we wanted to do the outreach component of this cruise, was educating the public and making them aware that there is an issue is, we thought, was a good way to go about, you know, our first step in trying to deal with it.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, Jesse.

POWELL: And I'd also add that this is a specific application that Project Kaisei is interested in. Of course, small islands are always looking for fuel sources so if you can recycle that plastic back into fuel, it saves them a lot of money.

CAVANAUGH: Back to Alison's comment. Is there any international attention being given to – I understand that this is not the only plastic garbage patch in the ocean. I mean, there are a couple in the Pacific and there are a couple in the Atlantic, is that correct?

CAWOOD: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: And so what kind of international attention has this pollution garnered?

CAWOOD: Well, I think people all over the world are concerned that in these areas about as far away from people as you can get is this undeniable sign of human influence. The only internation – there was a revision to the law in the United States governing marine debris in 2006, I believe, but I'm not sure what affect that has had yet. I'm just uncertain. But other than the international laws forbidding the dumping of plastic in international waters, I'm not aware of any formal international attention other than that people all over the world are very concerned.

CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let's hear from Geri in Escondido. Good morning, Geri. Welcome to These Days.

GERI (Caller, Escondido): Thank you for taking my call. I'm curious if you're doing anything like making DVDs to be used in the school. I travel a lot and I was in Cozumel last week and it's so much cleaner than it was 20 years ago. No beer cans, no Coke bottles on the bottom of the sea when you go snorkeling. And I've seen a little eight year old stand up to grown adults and say, oh, don't throw that over, you know. And I think it – You're just really – you should – You have a good resource. It'd be wonderful, maybe even influence kids to go into your field. Are you doing anything like that?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Geri. Alison.

CAWOOD: There was actually a teacher on board the cruise. Her name is Laura Dickens, she's local, she's at Patrick Henry High School. And we had a competitive application process to take a teacher on the cruise. We had over 50 applicants. So we – we are – we do really want to get this into schools. Laura is – We're going to work with her over this coming year to develop some activities which we'll publish online. There's als – there are videos and things that, hopefully, can go into part of that. So, yes, that – we – that is something we're very interested in doing.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Miriam, I know that there's a lot of work yet to do now about – after you've collected these specimens. You've got to do tests. You've got to do your research. Is there anything that you know now, right after this expedition, that you've learned from making the expedition?

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, the – I think the thing that surprised all of us is just the consistency of plastic once we got far enough off shore. We did 132 surface tows, surface net tows, which are called a manta tow, and they sample the very top of the water. And they're not a very large amount of water; you just tow it for 15 minutes. And in – of our 132 manta tows, we got – 100 consecutive tows had plastic in them, and we were shocked because in the ocean it's – not very much is that consistent naturally. So just to get anything for 100 straight tows over 1700 miles of ocean would be surprising, and the fact that it's plastic means that there's probably a lot of it out there to get because we just got, really, it consistently and in quantity.

CAVANAUGH: How long is it going to take you to actually go through these specimens and start doing your research, do you know?

GOLDSTEIN: It's going to be on the order of months to years.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

GOLDSTEIN: We're trying very hard to get it all – all of it out as fast as possible because we know people are really interested but it is a lot of lab time and a lot of data analysis time.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Alicia is calling from Point Loma. Good morning, Alicia. Welcome to These Days.

ALICIA (Caller, Point Loma): Hi. Thanks. I just wanted to say thanks a lot to all of you for doing this great research. I'm working with San Diego Coastkeeper on this exact issue almost all day every day. So, my question is if you see this as an international issue, which I completely agree with you, it is, what do you think are some of the most important changes needing to make here in California? I see some pretty big barriers to change, especially in some of our stormwater practices. So what do you see as things that we can do here in California to make a difference with this issue?

CAVANAUGH: Anyone want to take that? Miriam?

GOLDSTEIN: Yep. Well, obviously, this plastic is getting into the ocean so we would definitely be in favor of any strategies that prevent things from floating off the land into the ocean because the way the currents go, pretty much anything that – a certain percentage of anything that falls off the west coast of North America and the east coast of Asia, that is where much of this debris is coming from. So it would be great if we could just prevent, you know, litter, litter in the canyons, litter on the beaches, and stop these things at the source.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another phone call. It may be the last we have time for. Craig is calling from Oceanside. And good morning, Craig. Welcome to These Days.

CRAIG (Caller, Oceanside): Yes, good morning. I'm an ocean engineer and I normally build large floating structures. My question is, is anything being done to actually remove the three or four million tons, pick it up and dispose of it?

CAVANAUGH: Okay. That's a good – I was going to ask you that myself actually. Miriam.

GOLDSTEIN: I'm sorry. Was the question removing large floating structures? Or removing the debris?

CAVANAUGH: The debris in the garbage patch.

GOLDSTEIN: No, currently we're just trying to discover the density and the extent. As I'm sure that you know better than us – we do, as an engineer, that's – you need basic information in order to devise effective removal strategies. But these are the kinds of things that our collaborators at Project Kaisei are looking at.

CAVANAUGH: What are some of the challenges associated with removing the garbage? I know that you mentioned that some of it is the size of the organisms and so is the idea that you would actually be removing the organisms at the same time? Jesse?

POWELL: Yeah, that's a big concern. Obviously, when you're talking about millimeter-size pieces of plastic, you're going to be picking up a lot of plankton as well. And another concern is – not so much a concern but a technical challenge, is that even though there's a lot of plastic in the ocean, when you spread it out across the entire area that we're talking about, it is still fairly sparse. So if you're trying to get plastic that is, you know, maybe one piece per square meter, it takes a lot of energy to collect all that.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Now I'm wondering, you know, you're going to be busy doing your research from the specimens that you've collected for quite some time, do you know of any ongoing missions to further study these garbage patches? Do you know what's being planned for other, perhaps, expeditions? Alison? Miriam?

CAWOOD: I know that the Algalita Marine Research Foundation has another cruise going out later this year. As far as what we're doing, we're trying to organize a cruise that's going to go into the South Pacific where there's another convergence zone. It's the same type of oceanography. And as far as we know, this one hasn't been studied at all. And there's several other nonprofit groups who are doing cruises. I don't know if there as much science cruises as they are to raise awareness but who do cruises from here to Hawaii and things to try to raise awareness of the issue.

GOLDSTEIN: Another one of which I'm aware that's going out later this year, which is an awareness cruise, is the Plastiki, which is run by David de Rothschild out of San Francisco, and they're building a boat out of plastic bottles…

CAVANAUGH: Oh.

GOLDSTEIN: …and they're going to sail it to Hawaii.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you real quickly, Alison, are you going to be keeping up the website with updated information?

CAWOOD: Yeah, the plan is to maintain the website. It will definitely not be as constant as it was when they were on the cruise.

CAVANAUGH: Because it was every day when they were…

CAWOOD: Yeah, it was every day, multiple times a day, in general, while they were at sea. Yeah, we do plan to maintain it to let people know when we have results, when we have new things to tell them. You know, there's certain protocols about talking about unpublished research but as soon as it's, you know, the correct thing to do, we definitely will have the website open and we'll be announcing things there.

CAVANAUGH: And that website is?

CAWOOD: Seaplexscience.com.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, thank you so much. I want to thank you so much for coming in, telling us about this, and thank you for your work. I really appreciate it. Miriam Goldstein, chief scientist of the SEAPLEX expedition, thank you.

GOLDSTEIN: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: And Jesse Powell. He was a student researcher on the expedition. Jesse, thanks.

POWELL: Great to be here. Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: And Alison Cawood, thanks for all your good work on the website.

CAWOOD: Thank you. This was fun.

CAVANAUGH: And you've been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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