In search of the unseen: an investigation into plastics in our oceans

Cruising the open seas on the Sea Dragon. Photo: Katrina McQuail.
Cruising the open seas on the Sea Dragon. Photo: Katrina McQuail.
One of the biggest threats facing marine life is the 'microplastic' particles found in ocean ecosystems from bottom to top of food chains. Just back from a voyage of environmental exploration in the tropical Atlantic sampling the waters to build up a global picture of this ubiquitous pollutant, Ana Stanič writes of the joys and trials of life on the waves, and the need to keep our oceans clean.
This expedition has challenged me in many ways. But the key lesson I re-learned is that our earth is paradise - and that I must do more to protect it from myself and my relentless consumption.

I have always loved the ocean: it is in my genes.

So when my friend Maria Aceo - a London artist who works with plastic - told me about the scientific expedition she took part in to make the unseen toxics in our bodies and our oceans seen, my ears pricked up.

eXXpedition's mission is two-fold. The first to explore the issue of plastics, chemicals, endocrine disruptors and carcinogens that can cause disease in our personal and global environment.

The second is to engage women in scientific narratives about the consumer choices we make and the long-term health impacts on us and our environment.

Over 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year and at least 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are currently in the oceans. If this rate continues it is expected that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans.

While a lot has been written, little has been done about the plastic that accumulates in the five areas of the world ocean where ocean currents converge, known as the five gyres. Even less attention has been given to the study of micro- and nano- plastics found in the ocean.

Microplastic is plastic whose diameter is less than 5 mm and nanoplastic's diameter is between less than 100 nm. Invisible to the naked eye little is known about the effects of micro- and nano-plastic on plankton and fish, as well as on the ocean's and our health in general.

A key source of microplastic are the tiny microbeads (listed as polyethylene and polypropylene in product's list of ingredients) used in face and body scrubs, eyeshadows, sunscreen and toothpaste. Another important source are the millions of acrylic, nylon and polyester fibres which we release into the water by doing our laundry.

According to the Plastics Soup Foundation a fleece jacket of 680g releases almost a million fibres in every wash. At last membrane technology is being developed to filter water at sewage treatment plants. Filters can also be installed into domestic washing machines to help.

Once in the ocean, micro- and nano- plastic particles are ingested by fish and plankton. According to recent research, there is one micro-plastic particle in every gram of mussel meat. In the end the micro-plastic - and the contaminants it carries - ends up on our plates.

Our voyage of environmental exploration begins ...

Our Amazon expedition started in Recife in the northern and tropical part of Brazil. Our objective was to sample the waters from Brazil to Guyana so that a consortia of Australasian and American universities could study the presence of micro- and nano- plastic and toxins in this part of the Atlantic Ocean and its health in general.

This expedition has challenged me in many ways. But the key lesson I re-learned is that our earth is paradise - and that I must do more to protect it from myself and my relentless consumption.

Sadly EXXpedition had not managed to obtain permits to sample waters in the territorial seas and exclusive economic zones of the countries we sailed through. This meant that we had to limit our sample-taking to the high seas - meaning the area of the ocean 200 km or more from the shore.

The high seas are the part of the world oceans that is outside the jurisdictions of individual countries. In theory this vast area of the ocean 'belongs' to mankind but in reality there is no proper framework to protect the oceans.

A combination of weather conditions and lack of permits meant that we were only able to take samples of waters for 10 out of the 18 days at sea. The two leading scientist, Diana Papoulias and Barbara Drigo assured us that our work would be valuable for their analysis back home. Over the past two decades, Barbara has been studying environmental microbiomes as key indicators of a healthy terrestrial and marine ecosystem.

The plastic that matters most is way too small to see ...

While much attention is placed on macro-fauna in our seas (i.e. mammals and fish), it is the tiny, marine microbes that play a critical role in sustaining habitable life on planet earth. The marine microbiome is the foundation of the food chain serve as a primary respiratory and nutrient cycling machine for the entire planet.

It is incredibly sensitive to environmental stressors such as plastic), yet very little is known about community dynamics. Now more than ever understanding the health of the ocean microbiome is an urgent priority.

We took samples around midday every day since microorganisms are most active on the surface of the ocean when the sun is at its hottest. Suffering from sun allergies, having spent the last 16 years in sun-challenged Britain, I desperately searched for the elusive shade on the deck as we sat there patiently sterilising our equipment, holding the tubes with sterilized rubber gloves for hours at a time passing the samples through various filters to harvest marine nutrients, the microbiome and plastic.

Each of us was assigned to one or more of the eleven experiments we conducted every day. I worked on the marine microbiome and nanoplastic projects. We all participated in the manta trawl sampling which was used to collect micro plastic and other larger particles from the ocean.

We often found fish, plankton and other creatures in the manta trawl. Our finds were carefully analysed by Rachel Bellas (marine scientists specialising in sea mammals) and Diana (a fish biologist and an aquatic toxicologist) under the microscope in the galley and then stored away for further analysis in the lab on our return on shore.

The voyage of discovery begins with yourself

It was amazing to learn and observe things firsthand and engage with scientists directly. They were able to demystify and explain issues so quickly and easily. I learned so many things about plastics, chemicals, endocrine disruptors and carcinogens in the ocean and in our bodies as well as about myself.

Did you know that we are more microbes than human? There are ten times more bacterial cells in our body than human ones. How microbes influence our behaviour, our weight, our social interactions are only just starting to be studied. Could I blame microbes for what I do, I wonder?!

Sailing for 20 days was simply awesome. We sailed under the skies and stars of both the southern and northern hemisphere whilst the moon waxed and waned, crossed the Equator, saw the silver glistening fluorescent plankton at night, dolphins, birds and flying fish. 24 hour living, as Imogen - our captain - called it, meant that we took turns helming for 4 hours every 8 or so hours.

The 24-hour watch schedule was relentless especially as sleeping was a challenge due to the heat. Every four days we took a break from the watch for 24 hours. In return for a twelve-hour break one cooked meals for the whole crew and cleaned the boat for the other twelve hours. Many found spending a long time in the galley under the deck difficult. Luckily for me, I was only seasick on the first day.

The importance of good food ... and good companionship

The meals prepared on the boat were simply amazing: from pad thai to curries to pastas with pesto, vodka, red olive oil with garlic and chili sauces, to risotto, to couscous, quinoa, and a variety of lentil based dishes.

Rachel spoiled us with tapioca pancakes stuffed with pineapple and caramelized condensed milk. I managed to find a secret stash of chicken sausages and packets of feijoada, a famous Brazilian meat and bean stew, which Shannon and I prepared to the delight of all the omnivores on the boat one night.

Meals were the only times of the day when we were all on deck together. With sun setting at around 5 pm it was the nicest part of the day to be on deck. After dinner each day we would take turns to lead a discussion on a topic of our choice.

Lisa, the assistant director of a Solid Waste Department in North Carolina and the creator and coordinator of the NC Marine Debris Symposium, told us about the hierarchy of waste and how to see waste as a resource, closing the loop on recycling, consumer waste reduction as "voting with your wallet", landfill anatomy, and the process of capturing landfill gas and using it for energy.

Katrina, an organic farmer from Vancouver, got us to imagine life on an island where we could build a new sustainable community. It was amazing how many different and creative solutions we came up with including doing away with roads by travelling in star-wars like crafts hovering above ground.

Sarah, an owner of a property development company, led a discussion on the benefits of quality Early Care and Learning, and the need to meaningfully engage children and youth in tackling environmental issues.

As an international lawyer working in the field of energy I talked about the inter-relationship between world geopolitics, energy policy, law and local and environmental policies and the need not only to think globally and act locally but also to think locally and act globally!

Everything went to plan. Well, almost everything ...

The trip was not all smooth sailing but it was definitely an adventure! We had our fair share of storms (35 knots at some points), on the first night on board we started drifting down the river in Recife without a working engine when our anchor's grip loosened and we got stranded on a sand bank in the middle of the Essequibo river in Guyana and had to get evacuated.

We were about one hour by engine from the resort where we were meant to end our expedition when we hit the sandbank. The crew was using a combination of a map from 1925 and a waypoint guide to navigate us down the vast jungle river.

With the tide moving against us there was no way of getting off the sand bank even with the help of the locals. In the end we got taken to the resort which turned out to be paradise. After 18 days at sea the smells, the tastes (mango, coconut guava, etc) and sounds from the lush green jungle overwhelmed my senses.

This expedition has challenged me in many ways - learning to live with people you don't know in a constrained space of a boat floating in the ocean being one of them. But the key lesson I re-learned is that our earth is paradise - and that I must do more to protect it from myself and my relentless consumption.



Ana Stanic is a lawyer specialising in EU, international and energy law, the founder of E&A Law and a trustee of Resurgence.

Petition: 'Ban the use of microplastic' (