Microplastics in the Sargasso Sea

| 29th August 2019
Diving in the Sargasso
Toxic microplastic pollution glitters amid the iconic yellow seaweed in the Sargasso.


I thought I had an understanding of the impact of our toxic way of life. But despite all my reading, research and reporting, it wasn’t until I witnessed it firsthand that the extent of plastic pollution and its consequences sank in. It's terrifying. 

Cameraman Brice Lainé and I had joined an expedition to the Sargasso Sea with Greenpeace, who were testing for microplastics, among other things. 

The Sargasso Sea, the only body of water without shores, is defined by the currents of the North Atlantic gyre, currents that also carry with them our plastic filth, making it one of the five ocean garbage patches. 

Poisonous waste


The Sargasso is named after Sargassum, a free-floating yellow-brown seaweed that creates a habitat so rich it’s been dubbed the Atlantic golden rainforest.  The cloud-like mats of Sargassum provide a haven for hatchling sea turtles, baby fish, and hundreds of other marine animals.

There are large pieces of plastic entangled in the Sargassum, but the magnitude of it isn't visible from the surface. It has a subtler presence, revealing itself as you dive down into the blue. Then the realisation dawns: those the shards glittering all around you are broken up pieces of plastic.

Most ocean plastic is first discarded on land, not dumped directly into the water or thrown from the side of ships. Only around 9 percent of plastic produced has ever been recycled. Single-use plastic that ends up in landfills finds its way into our rivers and oceans, flushed into water systems or blown by wind currents. 

In the oceans, degrading plastic becomes even more poisonous as it attracts and binds with other man-made chemical pollutants. 

That is what I was staring at. Miniscule pieces of poisonous human waste from the countries that border the Atlantic, from the west coast of Africa to the east coast of the US, that had travelled thousands of kilometers, breaking up along the way.

We knew

Diving under and looking up into the Sargassum you see the small schools of juvenile trigger and file fish and other species darting around or just hiding within, like shrimp. Species we eat, species that are eaten by species we eat. 

Those insidious microplastics are what make their way into the gills and digestive systems of marine life and travel up the food chain, all the way to our dinner plates.

On this expedition, part of its year-long pole to pole campaign to push for a Global Oceans Treaty, Greenpeace found in its samples similar or greater concentrations of plastic to what they found in a study they did last year in the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Their analysis indicated that most of it originated from single-use plastics.

Celia Ojeda, a marine biologist and Greenpeace oceans campaigner, said: “This is why science is so important and why governments need to listen to scientists now. We need to take measures against plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is hardly a new phenomenon. A study undertaken back in the early 1970s, off the shores of Bermuda, found 3,500 pieces of plastic per square kilometer. We knew. Nearly fifty years ago we knew.

No quick fix 

A more recent, as yet unpublished study by the Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo, found that nearly 42 percent of fish sampled in the area had ingested microplastics.

Robbie Smith, a marine ecologist who was part of that study, and is the curator of the Bermuda Aquarium and Zoo, explained: "We need to be more respectful that plastic is a great tool but can become a nightmare. 

"There is no quick fix. Nothing is going away fast. It takes a decade or two for plastic to make its way into the watershed."

There is only so much that we as consumers can do. You can try to avoid plastic bags and you can recycle. But then at the grocery store produce is often wrapped in plastic, ice cold drinks come in plastic cups, your take-out arrives in plastic containers, wrapped in plastic. Hotel rooms are filled with small plastic shampoo bottles and body lotions. 

It’s all around us, everywhere. Literally.  Plastic micro-fibres are in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, from the north to the south pole.

Toxic plastics

Last year I went on assignment to the Antarctic where another Greenpeace study found microplastics in nearly all water samples and PFAS (chemicals that are used as stain and water repellents in things like cookware and outdoor gear) in snow samples.

Chilean scientists showed us microfibres they found in Antarctic clams. few months ago, I was in the Arctic where more recently a report found microplastics in the Arctic ice. The WHO organization just published its findings about the presence of microplastics in tap and bottled water.

Scientists don't yet fully understand what that plastic or the toxins the plastic contains can do to us. A recent study from June of this year said that the average person ingests around 2,000 microplastic particles a week, about the weight of a credit card.

The scientists and conservationists I spoke to are clear – the problem needs to be dealt with at the source. Companies and corporations need to end the production of single use plastic. We need to grow a culture of reuse and refill.

The “laissez-faire” attitude of too many key decision makers defies logic. There is a lot of buzz around plastic now, which is great, it’s a start. Some countries are starting to take measures, but this isn’t something that we can ease into or take our time with. This is an emergency. 

Climate crisis

We need more urgency around the environment and the climate crisis. We need to learn to respect the living planet that sustains us.

Given what I knew going into the trip to the Sargasso Sea, I am surprised by how jarring it is to witness firsthand. There was something about being tossed around by the wind and waves, how powerful and vast the oceans are, all the while knowing that beneath the seemingly pristine surface lies the evidence of our destructive ways. 

It’s not hard to imagine a time in the not too distant future where every single thing we consume from the ocean is toxic, where our pollution silently, slowly and invisibly destroys marine ecosystems - one of our main food sources.

Out of sight, out of mind doesn’t apply here. Our world is interconnected, and it’s time we start to save it and save ourselves before it’s too late.

This Author 

Arwa Damon is CNN's Senior International Correspondent.

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here