What goes around comes around

by Jenny Yarborough
Thursday, January 6, 2011

Staff photo by Joshua Curry

Bonnie Montelone speaks to a group of Audubon Society members about plastic pollution and the affects of it around the world.

Bonnie Monteleone understands what goes around comes around. She has seen the things we have let slide—the plastic straw that flew out of our hands in the wind, that disposable fork we forgot on the beach, even unlikely things like a toilet seat fished from the ocean.

Monteleone admits her ventures—month-long voyages at sea investigating the problem with plastic in the marine environment—are a little crazy; and her beginnings as a bystander, a University of North Carolina Wilmington liberal studies graduate student, who wanted to determine for herself if the North Pacific Gyre was indeed a floating garbage patch.

During a recent lecture she presented to the Cape Fear chapter of the National Audubon Society at Halyburton Park, Monteleone began her story. She shared a photograph of a snapping turtle named Mae West.

"It started with a grad course I was taking called Scientific Writing and we had a mandatory reading called ‘Plastic Ocean’ written by Susan Casey," Monteleone began. "In it she was describing Captain Charles Moore and what he was doing and how he stumbled onto this location in the North Pacific that had a large amount of plastic in it. So much so that he decided he was going to research it. Then it gives a whole list of all of the problems with plastic but it really was one sentence in that article that sent me on this crazy journey."

The sentence told of the unfortunate plight of Mae West, who, as a hatchling crawled into a milk jug ring. The ring became entangled around the largest part of the turtle’s shell and stayed there as Mae began to grow. The confinements of the plastic displaced its organs and instead of breaking, the piece of one-time-use plastic deformed the turtle’s shell as it grew around it.

The thought of this single turtle had Monteleone thinking, "I have to learn more about it (the North Pacific Gyre) and I have to know if this is really a problem; and if it is, I feel it is my duty to educate other people about it."

And so she did.

Two years ago Monteleone contacted Captain Moore and volunteered to go along for his 10-year anniversary voyage during his first sampling of the North-Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch.

Using a manta surface trawl the team collected samples of zooplankton, plastic particulates and fish.

There are five main gyres in the world. Formed by the natural vortex of wind and current, these gyres accumulate water, nutrients and whatever else is floating around in the water.

As Monteleone puts it, "This is the ocean’s bloodstream."

What they found was an average rate of 6-to-1 plastic to zooplankton within the boundaries of the gyre. She said the fact is we really don’t know what all of these plastics are doing to marine life or what they are doing to us. What we do know is that plastics don’t biodegrade in the ocean, they photo degrade meaning they become brittle in the sun and as the waves move, these brittle plastics fall apart—sometimes into pieces invisible to the naked eye.

It’s been proven that fish, birds and other marine animals mistake the plastics for food and if this doesn’t kill them the question we might ask ourselves is: "If fish are eating plastic and we are eating fish what is the plastic doing to us?" Or "Why continue using one-time-use plastics made of a non-renewable resource—petroleum?"

Monteleone admitted her goal was to visit the most notorious gyre but now she’s been to three. And her education efforts have mushroomed. Today, undergraduates at UNCW are studying the chemical components of the plastics Monteleone has brought back to land. Campaigns against plastic to-go containers, grocery bags and other one-time-use plastics have begun. Education, Monteleone believes, will eventually override carelessness.

Democrat or Republican, Monteleone said, it’s big industry that’s controlling us and encourages citizens to vote for spending money for sustainable green practices.

"Educate, motivate and legislate," she said.

First, Monteleone said, we must shut off the faucets. Then, think about and go back to what we did before plastics—before we see them come back around— where we least want to...in the ocean.

And when it comes to the three R’s, reducing should be No. 1. Recycling should be what we do at the very least.

Participate in or start your own beach cleanup because a beach cleanup is a gyre cleanup.

"We live on an ocean planet," she said. "We are ocean beings…When we cry, we cry ocean water. Even our blood has the same salinity as the ocean."

To read more about how to help or about Monteleone’s voyages, visit  www.theplasticocean.blogspot.com.

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