garbage.jpgMembers of a crew of scientists who during the past two years sailed twice from the Bay Area to a garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean gathered in San Francisco today to discuss their experiences and what the public can learn from their voyages.

The mission, Project Kaisei, is organized by the Sausalito-based Ocean Voyages Institute, which operates the 151-foot brigantine tall ship Kaisei that took a crew of 20 people to the North Pacific Gyre, a whirlpool of ocean currents about 1,000 miles off the coast of North America.

The group, led by founder Mary Crowley, went out in August 2009 and again this year to investigate scattered fields of garbage in the gyre, as well as the best ways to clean up the debris and prevent it from ever getting into the ocean in the first place.

Another researcher has described the garbage patch as an island of trash the size of Texas, but Crowley said it’s more of an archipelago of small fields of debris scattered across several hundred miles of ocean.

Crowley said she had the idea to look into the problem of marine debris when she “began seeing and hearing how drastically things are changing” in that area of the ocean.

“Five, six, eight years from now, everyone will feel the extent of the problem because it will end up on beaches,” she said.

During its journeys, the group found “everything from toothbrushes to a car fender, and every plastic container imaginable,” Crowley said.

Plastics are the main problem in the gyre since they have the greatest capacity to harm wildlife that either consume or get trapped by the debris, according to Crowley.

The institute estimates that 260 million tons of plastic are produced each year, less than 8 percent of which gets recycled.

“The rest is out there to cause us trouble down the line,” Crowley said.

A big problem with plastic is it starts to break down into “microplastics,” smaller pieces of debris that can be easily ingested by marine life, said Nick Mallos, a marine debris scientist who was also on the boat this August.

Mallos, who works for the Washington-based environmental group Ocean Conservancy, said the crew on the Kaisei observed more than 16,000 cases of microplastics during their three-week trip.

The voyage was “quite a surreal experience,” he said.

“You’re 1,000 miles from San Francisco, 1,000 miles from Hawaii, and you’re picking up trash,” he said.

In addition to studying the garbage and wildlife the crew observed during its voyages, Project Kaisei is working to improve the equipment used to pick up the debris, including adapting oil skimmer technology.

“A lot of things that could work with an oil spill response could also work with plastic,” Crowley said. “In essence, (plastics) are just another form of an oil spill” since the raw materials for most plastics are oil-based.

Project Kaisei is also collaborating with other environmental groups to work with governments and industries around the world to reduce the amount of plastics produced and lessen their impact on the environment.

“If we don’t stop the flow, the cleanup’s worthless,” Mallos said.

The vessel Kaisei is currently docked across the Bay from San Francisco at Point Richmond. Members of Project Kaisei traveled across the Pacific Ocean to Asia earlier this year, and trips are planned to San Diego, Seattle and Hawaii in upcoming months to continue to spread the word about the issue of marine debris.

“We’re all part of the problem and we all have to be part of the solution,” Crowley said.

Dan McMenamin, Bay City News

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