TOMRA circular economy advisor reflects on all-female ocean plastic research mission
Circular economy advisor Kristine M. Berg at TOMRA has returned from the eXXpedition voyage from Easter Island to Tahiti. The voyage was part of eXXpedition “Round the World,” a two-year ocean plastic research mission with 300 crew travelling in 30 legs across the world’s major plastic accumulation gyres.
The journey from Easter Island to Tahiti took the crew past some of the world’s most remote uninhabited islands and through the South Pacific gyre, seeking to measure the impact of plastic pollution and raise awareness of the problem.
This was not Kristine’s first up-close-and-personal encounter with ocean plastic. She also joined eXXpedition’s North Pacific 2018 voyage from Hawaii to Canada through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the planet’s largest accumulation zone for ocean plastics. Conversely, the South Pacific gyre is the smallest of the five oceanic trash gyres. Kristine looks back on her journeys across these two contrasting plastic accumulation zones, in the world’s largest ocean.Surrounded by and connecting five continents, the Pacific Ocean is influenced by all these lands. This is why the two gyres in the Pacific, on either side of the equator, are so different. Around 90% of the world’s population lives in the northern hemisphere, with just 10% south of the equator. However, research estimates that plastic influx into the ocean is divided 70/30. This is due to factors on land, such as collection rates, waste infrastructure, types of plastic sold, and their purpose. Combined with weather systems and ocean currents, this results in two very different accumulation rates in the gyres.
Kristine Berg shares that the biggest learning that she took away from researching ocean plastic in both gyres is also a depressing one: that we’re never going to be able to clean it up. “After plastic ends up in the ocean it becomes so small and broken down, and it’s just so omnipresent; how many trips out here would it take to clean it up? Even after we had been sailing for over a week, we still saw more and more signs of human life from land floating around us.”
However, this lesson is also a cause for optimism, as it shows that where we need to focus is not solely on clean-up, but also on stopping the plastic from entering the oceans in the first place. “If we want to solve it, we have to do it on land,” Kristine explains. “Which is great news, because that means we can all get to work, right where we are! We have a lot we can do already; we just need to get going on it and not wait for a magic silver bullet to solve it, because that doesn’t exist for something as complex as ocean plastics.”