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Cornell grads trawling Bermuda for plastic

A group of Cornell University graduates plan to spend the next week in Bermuda touring the Island on paddleboards and sleeping under the stars.

It all sounds very idyllic, but the group, known as Plastic Tides, has a serious purpose ­— to study plastics in the ocean and heighten awareness of the problem.

Look around a Bermuda beach that hasn't been cleaned for tourists and you'll probably see tiny bits of plastic mixed with the sand, and any number of plastic bottles, old shoes, lobster pots, and used tooth brushes, among other things, washed onto the shore. Ninety percent of all garbage in the ocean is plastic, and plastic is now considered one of the biggest threats to marine life.

Four amateur scientists from Plastic Tides, will spend the next days circumnavigating the Island on paddleboards. They will film as they take scientific samples and trawl for plastics in the water around Bermuda. The ultimate goal is to make a short documentary film about their work.

“It is cool because no one before has tried to collect samples, in this way, off paddleboards,” said Plastic Tides' videographer Gordon Middleton.

“The paddle boards are 12ft long and are made from the same material used to make catamaran hulls. The amateur scientists will be dragging a collection net, called a manta trawl, behind the paddleboards to collect plastic in the water. The advantage of using a paddleboard is that there is no motor to create a wake that can push some materials away from the boat and the collection net.

“The biggest reason we chose Bermuda, is that it is right in the Sargasso Sea,” said Mr Middleton. “The Sargasso Sea is the only sea not bound by land. It is created by currents of the Atlantic Ocean.”

He said the 270,000 sq mi (an estimate) trash patch in the Pacific Ocean, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, but people forgot there were similar gyres in all the oceans. The gyres form in doldrum areas of the ocean, where there is no, or very little, current.

“The gyre represents the highest concentration of plastic, but really there is plastic all through the ocean, just in lower concentrations,” Mr Middleton said. “Another reason we chose Bermuda is that it is gorgeous. It is a beautiful place where people are doing amazing work to protect the environment and clean things up, and yet plastic garbage is still an issue. It shows that you can't just fix the problem by cleaning things up, you need to stop plastic entering the ocean in the first place.”

He said recycling and reusing were good, but in the end, legislation is needed to make companies that produce plastic and plastic items realise that they can benefit from producing alternative products and materials.

The team is led by Christian Shaw, a professional kiteboarder and avid waterman from Ithaca, New York. He recently graduated from Cornell University where he studied sustainability and business. His lifelong goal is to combine watersports with environmental education and awareness in pursuit of a sustainable future. Other members include Celine Jennison, a plant scientist, Matthew Sexton who handles the equipment and Julian Rodriguez, Field Coordinator.

“This is my first time making a conservation film,” said Mr Middleton. “It is a new strategy for me. I have most of my experience in filming extreme sports and travel. This is a little bit different. There is more creativity and interview involved in this. I am really excited to push myself into new avenues.”

He said paddleboarding was one of the fastest growing outdoor sports in the world and is a lot more accessible to the average person than water sports like white water kayaking or surfing. He said you could become a competent paddle boarder within two days.

“We think it is really awesome,” he said.

Plastic Tides is paired with two organisations including the Plastic Ocean Project and Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. The latter organisation attempts to pair adventurers, like the Plastic Tides group, with strong scientists who need sample collection help. Samples taken by Plastic Tides will be analysed by the Adventurers organisation.

“We are very excited about that,” said Mr Middleton. “Locally, we have the support of Bermuda Institute for Ocean Sciences (BIOS). They helped us through a lot of things. We are also working in conjunction with Keep Bermuda Beautiful (KBB), Greenrock and the Bermuda Marine Debris Taskforce.”

While in Bermuda, Plastic Tides is hoping to meet with local schoolchildren and carry out beach clean ups with them.

“It is all about reaching out to the community,” said Mr Middleton. “Kids have an amazing amount of influence on their parents.”

For more information see www.plastictides.org. The group also has a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youstream.

A Bermuda beach after Hurricane Bill in 2009. The bulk of waste cleaned up after the storm by the Department of Park consisted of plastic. Photo by Vanese Gordon.
<p>Plastic facts</p>

n According to water filtration company Brita, Americans throw away 35 billion plastic water bottles every year.

n Packaging is the largest end use market segment accounting for just over 40 percent of total plastic usage (Plastics Europe)

n Annually, approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide. More than one million bags are used every minute.

n A plastic bag has an average “working life” of 15 minutes.

n Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century.

n Plastic accounts for around 10 percent of the total waste we generate

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Published June 04, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated June 04, 2014 at 9:30 am)

Cornell grads trawling Bermuda for plastic

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