Last summer, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography teamed up with Project Kaisei to form SEAPLEX, a 20-day expedition to gather data about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a massive whirlpool-like current between North America and Asia that’s filled with trash. SEAPLEX sought to develop a better understanding of the size of the garbage patch, its contents, and its effects on local ecosystems, in hopes of paving the way for further action.

If you need any more proof that modern civilization has a waste problem, this is it: despite all of our sanitation and waste disposal systems, despite our countless landfills, incinerators, and photos of seagulls with soda rings around their necks, unprecedented amounts of nonbiodegradable garbage is ending up in the ocean. Social justice issues often seem disconnected from environmentalism – and with the gyres as far from people as you can get, this issue seems like environmentalism in its purest form – but when you examine the root causes of human exploitation and environmental degradation, they often turn out to be one and the same. Consider, for example, the sweatshops that churn out cheap goods, which are then quickly thrown away because – well, they’re so cheap!

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Miriam Goldstein, the chief scientist on the SEAPLEX expedition, who gave me some information on the trip, the findings, and her outlook in general. Miriam is a fourth-year graduate student at Scripps and a science blogger at Double X and The Oyster’s Garter.

Tell me about the North Pacific Trash Gyre. What is it? How did it form? How is it developing?

First of all, there are lots of gyres. They’re natural features formed when a jet stream goes to the east and an ocean current goes to the west. It pushes the top of the ocean east and the bottom west while the Earth is rotating, creating a big, slow whirlpool. There are five major gyres, and all the stuff that falls off of continents falls into them. Since plastic doesn’t break down, it all gets sucked into these whirlpools. We don’t really know what happens to it then. One of the big open questions we’re trying to answer is whether the plastic eventually breaks down or whether it keeps accumulating. Right now there aren’t any good measures of it.

On the SEAPLEX website, there’s a picture of a stuffed animal caught in a fishing net. What other sorts of recognizable garbage did you find this summer? Anything interesting or bizarre?

Image description: a plush dog caught in a fishing net, surrounded by other debris.The stuffed dog was definitely the most bizarre. We found Lucky the Dog in a ghost net, which is a piece of fishing debris that gets lost. Nets are also made of plastic, so they don’t go anywhere, either, which is a big problem because they go on killing [sea life] even though no one is using them. Lucky was stuck in one and we had no idea how he got there. He’d only been in there for a couple of weeks, because he wasn’t too stinky. Other things we found were plastic bottles, pieces of combs, and seawater filters, which are pieces of boat engines. We saw recognizable debris like construction hats and bits of plastic crates, but the vast majority of it was tiny pieces of plastic.

What effects do these have on local ecosystems? How are humans affected, or how will we be in the future?

That’s one of the things we’re trying to find out. It’s well known that big animals like albatrosses will ingest the plastic and feed it to their young, so they end up with lots of plastic in their stomachs. But with the little pieces, the effects are a lot less clear. They’re about the right size to be eaten, the same size as zooplankton, but we’re not sure if they’re being eaten or what effect that might have. One thing I’m looking at is fouling communities, like barnacles, that live on the debris, and where these communities are transporting animals that grow on them across the ocean, where they wouldn’t naturally go.

It’s unclear if there’s a direct effect in terms of toxins. The gyres are an unproductive ecosystem, which is to say that they have cool animals that are adapted to live in a food-limited environment, but they don’t have nutrients. Our fisheries aren’t there, so the big fish we eat aren’t in the gyres, and it’s unclear if there would be food chain effects all the way up to people. But the saddest thing about the situation is that it’s a wilderness area filled with trash. People need to know that there are these places out there that are frontiers. If an open ocean can’t be a frontier, there really are none left.

A lot of people are skeptical because the pieces of plastic are too small to show up on satellite photos, so it doesn’t look like the massive island of garbage that you might expect. A lot of other people don’t see what the big deal is. Does this skepticism affect your work? Do you run into problems because of it?

Scientifically, you can count me as one of the skeptics, in that I want to see good data before I say this is the worst thing in the world. [Our research on the gyres] has been the reverse of a lot of other environmental issues. Certainly no one is in favor of plastic in the ocean, but in terms of actual science the evidence is really not yet there. On the internet there’s a lot of misinformation, which goes beyond what we can realistically say right now. My favorite piece of misinformation is a picture that purports to be a satellite picture of the trash, but is actually a natural plankton bloom off of Japan.

I think that because the idea of trash in a far away area is so arresting, it’s something that people can latch onto, unlike global warming. There’s trash in the ocean – everyone knows what that looks like. I don’t know if it’s harmful yet. I tend to try to be the person who’s sticking to the scientific facts, and not saying that the trash is harming people, because we don’t know that yet.

What does the average person need to know about the trash gyre? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

It’s not an island, it’s lots of little pieces! When I tell regular people, they say it doesn’t look like anything. When I tell scientists, they’re utterly shocked and depressed about the consistency of the pieces. In 100 straight tows [dragging a net through the water to collect debris], we got visible plastic. If you’re trying to find the most common animal in the world, you couldn’t get it in 100 straight tows. That’s what I think is really depressing. We’re not sampling that much. So if we’re getting it in every one, that means there’s a lot. It’s disturbing! It’s a huge area, and it really is covered in little pieces of plastic. It poses a significant challenge to clean up.

I would tell people that 80% of the trash is coming from improperly disposed-of garbage from land. One thing everyone can certainly do is make sure that trash is disposed of properly. Kaisei is looking into potential cleanup solutions, so I hope they come up with something.

Maybe it’s tacky to refer to one interview in another interview, but in an interview with ScienceOnline, you described yourself as a “Yiddish-spouting biological oceanographer with a love for naughty invertebrate hijinks.” Do you feel that your Jewish identity is connected with your writing and research? Does your identity inform your work at all?

I think you can’t really do this kind of work without thinking about Tikkun Olam, but I’m not particularly religious. I was raised more religious than I am now, and environmental action was always a part of that. I do really enjoy the remnants of Yiddish culture that have been passed down by my family. They say that when you’re at sea, you swear a lot, and Yiddish has the best swearing.