Held at TUAT (Tokyo University of Agriculture & Technology) the Plastic Symposium was a day to hear about the latest research findings on plastic issues, new research that is happening and findings from the first leg from Majuro to Tokyo.

Our first speaker was Captain Charles Moore.  He started with the history of of plastics with the nylon stockings for women being invented in 1939 and the development of plastic tableware to be used by the military during WW2 to cite a couple of examples.  The 1950‘s Life Magazine cover story featuring a family being freed from the hassles of everyday life by embracing a disposable plastic lifestyle sealed our fates for the massive plastic consumption and addiction to follow.

Captain Moore talked about the issues surrounding recycling including the different types of plastic and their properties and the low recovery rates of used plastic.  He talked about his previous trips into the Pacific gyre, his research findings and methods used to collect data  and sort the samples.

One of the final images he showed was one of our ocean’s great creatures.  A whale washed up onshore in West Seattle and an autopsy revealed its stomach contents to contain a pair of sweat pants, a golf ball, 20 plastic bags, small towels, duct tape and surgical gloves.  The death was unknown but you can be sure it’s stomach contents did not make for a healthy life.

The second speaker for the morning was Dr Atsuhiko Isobe with his presentation “Marine plastic litter as a vector of toxic metals – it’s behaviour & numerical modelling”.  His team looked into ways of measuring beach litter using aerial webcams, the effectiveness of beach cleanups and the toxicity of some marine litter such as PVC fishing floats.

Then Dr Hideshige Takada presented a very interesting and sobering talk on ‘Chemicals in Marine Plastics: carrier of toxic chemicals to marine organisms’.  I learnt about Endocrine Disruptors found in plastics.  These Endocrine disruptors effect our hormone production and can contribute to the feminisation of men (man boobs) and effect the fertility of women as well as cause learning difficulties and attention deficit disorder.  The levels of ‘nonylphenols’ released from commonly used polystyrene and propylene cups, containers, dishes and drink bottle lids was alarming.

Dr Takada has also done a lot of research into the effects of POPs (persistent organic pollutants) in sea water. PCBs which are industrial products used for a variety of things including lubricants and are known endocrine disrupting chemicals.  DDT was used as insecticide before it was banned in the 70s.  These (and other) man made chemicals are persistent ie. they don’t degrade, are toxic to humans and marine organisms and hydrophobic which means they like to get out of the seawater and find a nice piece of plastic or tissue cell to reside on.

This research made me worry for the future of my kids.  When I return I will be purging my house of plastic especially anything used for food & drink storage.  The risk is not worth taking.

Drs Yutaka Watanuki & Izumi Watanage presented their findings on Plastic ingestion in seabirds and its potential impact and suspected effects of hazardous chemicals on wildlife.  This includes ingestion of solid plastic pieces when scavenging for food on the surface of water and bio-magnification of ingested plastics within the food chain.

Hank Carson (above) from the University of Hawaii in Hilo and a crew member on the first leg presented his research on “The impacts of plastic pollution on the Hawaiian Islands”.  He talked about the effects of plastic pieces in the sand as an insulator of the beach which increases the sand temperature.  Sand temperature determines the sex of turtle eggs so a change can adversely alter the breeding cycles of turtles.

His team also found that 16% of plastics collected had bite marks.  They were trying to identify who was eating the plastic (which fish & birds) and in what quantities.

We were shown one of the net boluses collected on leg 1 which contained myriad fish, many of them coastal dwellers.  It also contained other plastics and was a complete floating ecosystem transporting a variety of fish, vegetation, corals and other marine life to destinations far away.  This increase in billions of extra floating rafts has the potential to accelerate the introduction of invasive species to other areas of the oceans.

And finally Marcus Erikson from the 5 Gyres gave a great presentation on “The Global distribution of plastic pollution and recent observations from the Western Garbage Patch expedition”.  He talked a lot about what we all can do on each level – individual, community and government level.  More to follow later.