Panama City — A team of international scientists working on a research vessel off the coast of Panama is looking for something you might think would be hard to find.
“We are exploring the unexplored,” Alvise Vianello, an associate chemistry professor at Aalborg University in Denmark, told CBS News. “…It’s like, you know, finding the needle in the haystack.”
In this case, the needle is microplastic, and the ocean is drowning in it.
An estimated 33 billion pounds of the world’s plastic trash enters the oceans every year, according to the nonprofit conservation group Oceana, eventually breaking down into tiny fragments. A 2020 study found 1.9 million microplastic pieces in an area of about 11 square feet in the Mediterranean Sea.
“Microplastics are small plastic fragments that are smaller than 5 millimeters,” Vianello said.
The researchers are trying to fill in a missing piece of the microplastic puzzle.
“I want to know what is happening to them when they enter into the ocean. It’s important to understand how they are moving from the surface to the seafloor,” said researcher Laura Simon, also with Aalborg University.
About 70% of marine debris sinks to the seafloor, but we know little about its impact as it does. A study published in March by the 5 Gyres Institute estimates there are now 170 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean — more than 21,000 for every person on the planet.
Vianello explains that some of the fish we eat, like tuna, swordfish and sardines, could be ingesting these microplastics.
He says the data collected by these researchers could help us better understand how microplastics are affecting everything from the ocean’s ability to cool the earth to our health.
The scientists are conducting their research on a ship owned by the Schmidt Ocean Institute, a nonprofit that is funded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy.
The Schmidts let scientists use the ship at no cost — but there’s a catch. They must share their data with other scientists around the world.
“And all the knowledge gained during these years about plastic pollution, I think, it’s starting to change people’s minds,” Vianello said.
It may be because a lot of what we think is disposable never really goes away.