The plastic oceans of Edward Carpenter

Today plastic pollution in the world's oceans is a widely recognised issue, yet back in 1971 marine biologist Edward Carpenter was unable to get the scientific community to take head of his findings

Jessica Predko
27th February 2023
Image credit: Unsplash
Every year, 14 million tonnes of plastic is estimated to get into our oceans and only 9% of the world’s plastics are recycled. Despite there having been an increase in published work on plastic pollution in recent decades, plastic pollution wasn’t always a welcomed issue in the scientific community.

It all started in 1971, when marine biologist Edward Carpenter found small bits of plastic in the Atlantic Ocean every time he towed his net whilst studying algae. He was shocked that the plastic was found such a long way from shore and even started measuring the weight of the plastic he was towing. There were around 3,500 particles of plastic per square kilometre, and there was a variety of different plastics.

Carpenter was convinced this would go onto harm marine life. Whilst studying fish larvae, he discovered not everything he thought was fish larvae, was actually fish larvae. To his shock, when squeezed, a piece of plastic about 1mm – 2mm in diameter popped-out.

There were around 3,500 particles of plastic per square kilometre

He then went further to publish 2 papers on his findings in 1972, but these were not accepted by the scientific community. His bosses even told him to stop measuring plastics in our oceans and to “just concentrate on biology”. But Carpenter would not give up, and continued his research in secret.

Fast forward to 1997, Captain Charles Moore was competing in a race in the Pacific Ocean, when he stumbled across fishing nets which were miles long, plastic bags and other pieces of plastic. This mass of plastic was what is now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Image credit: Unsplash

In 2015, a video of a turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose went viral online. Pliers were used, but these were no use and the turtle cried out in pain. Eventually the straw was removed, revealing itself to be 10cm long. The video was watched by millions worldwide. Carpenter believes that the video demonstrate the harm plastic was causing to other organisms. In addition to injury, plastic in the ocean creates other issues. Organisms will feed on plastic and during bird autopsies, plastics have been found in stomachs.

The amount of plastic in the ocean has continued to increase. An Oxford University study in 2016 found that 11 tonnes of plastics are dumped in our oceans each year alone. However, the world has started to wake up to the plastic problem and in 2022, The Ocean Clean-up removed 10 tonnes of plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

In addition to removing plastics from oceans there are further solutions to tackle the plastic problem. These include to create biodegradable plastics; to reduce or avoid, if possible, single-use plastics; to put our waste in the correct recycling bin and to support organisations addressing plastic pollution.

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