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A warm welcome to Wageningen

1 april 2010

The plastic soup issue is getting the attention of several Dutch organisations, amongst which the Wageningen University. Two groups of students are working on plastic soup projects. Together with Maria Westerbos, Stichting de Noordzee and Oost NV, the groups managed to invite Charles Moore, the ‘discoverer’ of the plastic continent, to give a lecture at the University last Friday. Mr. Moore gave a fascinating presentation for an audience of over 200. His lecture can be viewed on the University-broadcast wurtv.

To further discuss the questions and possible answers the students joined the weekly conference call of the “Denktank” with our Beagle-colleagues. We very much appreciate their vivid and scientific input, and invite them and others of the Wageningen community to actively join the weblog discussion.

6 reacties leave one →
  1. WUR students (ACT team for Oost nv) permalink
    6 april 2010 12:59 pm

    Our group truly enjoyed attending the weekly conference call with Arend Bolt and Haico Wevers. It has given us new inspiration and ideas for our project and the discussion after the satellite call with the ‘Denktank’ has been very useful to focus our research.

    When Charles Moore (the scientist that discovered the plastic soup) came to Wageningen last week, he explained it will be almost impossible to clean the plastic soup that is already present. He also believes the ocean to have a self-cleaning capacity, and that the plastic will return to us in time by being ‘spit out’ on for instance the beaches. It is our job to make sure the soup doesn’t increase in size, and that we clean beaches, harbours, and estuaries containing high concentrations of plastics. Hopefully we will be in time to prevent more pollution so the ocean will keep the self-cleaning capacity. After our conversation with the representatives of Boskalis and Van Gansewinkel this week, we also came to the conclusion that it seems more efficient to invest in prevention of plastic accumulation and in the cleanup of costal environments with high plastic concentrations. Special attention should be paid to the input of plastic via rivers, harbours and from ship dumps. Biodegradable plastics are also often mentioned as a solution, however, biodegradable is not similar to marine degradable and up to know there are hardly any marine degradable plastics.

    To asses if measurements have effect, both us and the representatives of Boskalis and Van Gansewinkel realize it is important to monitor if the amount of plastic in the oceans decrease. It seems impossible to determine the exact size of the garbage patches and the concentration of plastic, so we will have to rely on indirect measurements of plastic concentration. The research done by Jan-Andries Franiker of IMARES is one of the few long term studies on the effects of marine plastics. He examines the stomachs of birds for plastic concentration. This method could be used worldwide to asses the effects of measurements (April 6th: ).
    Furthermore, dumping by ships and fishing boats is difficult to monitor on the open ocean but strict regulation and surveillance is needed to prevent a large percentage of plastics ending up in the ocean.

    To convince the international community of the importance of preventing plastic to end up in the ocean, the detrimental effects of plastics in the ocean need to be identified and quantified. For example, we know that toxic components bind to plastics and are then ingested by marine animals, and we know that marine animals are contaminated with toxic compounds. However, it is not clear how much of these toxins origin from the plastic sources. Therefore, more research is needed to qualify and quantify the effects of ingested “polluted” plastics. These studies can also form the basis to assess the effects on human health. It is known that toxins accumulate in higher trophic levels, and therefore human health is at risk. Besides health and ecosystem issues, the detrimental effects on fishery and tourism need to be determined. When all these effects are quantified, the economic losses can be calculated and used to convince the international community of the need for funding preventive measures.
    The lack of funding currently rises from lack of responsibility. Responsibility can be increased by developing markers that are imbedded in plastics and that can be used to trace back the producer of plastics, as suggested by the ‘Denktank’ from Boskalis and Van Gansewinkel. This way, companies can be rewarded when their production cycle is clean and they can be held responsible when they lose too many resins. Yet to make this method efficient, monitoring should not only take place in the plastic soup, as most plastic in this soup exists already for years or decades. It should rather be monitored at river mouths and harbours to accurately respond to plastic pollution and trace back the sources.
    Last but not least, when road maps are developed for plastic products, the costs, including the environmental costs can better be included in the market price.

    • 7 april 2010 2:48 pm

      Could you explain your ideas about the roadmaps in more detail? I am interested in this roadmapping, since my master thesis is about sustainable waste management of plastic packaging.


  2. WUR students (ACT team for Oost nv) permalink
    6 april 2010 2:32 pm

    We spoke with our project group about the possibility of using satellite imaginary to determine the size and location of the garbage patch. We’ve looked into it, and found the following:

    We think that it is not possible to make a direct estimation of the extent of the plastic accumulation zones using satellites.Most of the plastics are suspended in a shallow water column, which makes it impossible to see from space. Captain Charles Moore stated in his presentation last week that it is not even possible to identify the plastic debris from the ship’s mast. It’s already too far from the water surface.
    However, indirect methods are available to predict possible accumulation spots. The study of Pichel et al.,(Pichel, Churnside et al. 2007) used satellite data, including wind stress, sea surface temperature (SST), and chlorophyll-A (Chla, measure for algae density) to support ocean circulation models and aerial surveys from an airplane in the North Pacific Tropical Convergence Zone (near Hawaii). These parameters are measures for the location of surface convergence at sea, thus indicate where plastic debris accumulates. By correlating the observations from several 300 meter altitude flights with the physical parameters (SST, ChlA and their gradients), they have calculated at which temperature and ChlA-concentration plastic debris concentration was highest. The question however raises whether such satellite-derived prediction of plastic hotspots can be introduced in the other gyres. Secondly, the plastic debris observations only concerned large plastic particles (buoys, fishing gear). From a 300 m height, nothing can be said about the smaller, but more abundant particles.
    Moreover, Fourier Transform Infrared (FT-IR) spectroscopy is being applied to identify the type of plastic (Barnes, Galgani et al. 2009). A short review of several spectral techniques is given by Anzano, Gornushkin et al. (2000). No indication can be found whether it is feasible to apply these techniques on satellites or airplanes to identify plastics and their types.

  3. WUR students (ACT team for Oost nv) permalink
    9 april 2010 7:29 am

    Hi Wouter, although we recognize roadmaps for plastic products can make a difference, we have no expertise in this field. We think that you would probably have more detailed ideas. Can you share these?

    • Wouter permalink
      9 april 2010 9:43 am

      For every plastic product, you can analyse its (intended) supply chain on costs, but also on e.g. carbon emissions and energy use. Think of LCA’s. Most important is the reverse chain, when the product becomes waste and for end-users, most of the time it has no value anymore. The problem is, that when a certain product is intended for after-life incineration as a waste management activity, it might still end up as litter. Then, we should investigate the impact on ecology. What happens when in ends-up in the ocean? Does it harm fish, or other species. This is hardly possible to investigate, but you can give it a try. I think this will still make any sense…..

  4. 16 april 2010 8:25 am


    I thought somewhere in the blogs it was mentioned that besides Jan Andries Franiker, two PhD-students of WUR are involved in research concerning the Plastic Soup. Can someone provide me with their names and contact details?

    Thank you!


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