This is the final entry in the series “Olga’s Blog,” eyewitness reports and interviews by marine plastics expert Olga Mironenko during a Pacific Ocean research cruise in March and April 2017. Read the whole series starting here.

I had thought that once I  was out of the plastic gyre, and off the research vessel, and had taken off that “I research marine plastics” badge, the issue might go away somewhat. Or at least, stop popping up every couple of minutes.

Because when you’re up on the deck of the ship, it takes nothing more than a pair of eyes (even one eye should suffice) to notice all kinds of trash floating by at any given moment. And I mean all kinds: sometimes the objects out there will surprise you with their odd and peculiar shapes and colors. A huge mattress — an unlikely thing, glowing all colors of the rainbow — challenged all my assumptions as to what was possible to find out there floating in the ocean.

So yes, once you’re back on dry land, you would expect some personal space from the discovery of glowing mattresses and other less fancy stuff. And so the next day you’re off to the Whale Museum on San Juan Island, in Washington state’s Puget Sound (highly recommended, by the way, both the island and the museum), to enjoy the beauty.

Trust me, if there’s something you’re not looking for at that moment, it’s trash.

One of the skeletons on display is of a young male gray whale that died while entangled in plastic netting. (Photo: Olga Mironenko

Until you’re warmly welcomed by the exhibits, and the skeletons of the whales, which are skeletons now rather than whales courtesy of — you guessed it. Plastic garbage.

So that you can feel the scale of the problem, about a half of the Whale Museum’s current exhibits died a plastic death. Hard to believe a whale, big and strong as it may appear, can actually die from something as silly as a glowing mattress. But sadly, they do.

So if I were to sum up my 33 days out on the Pacific in search of ocean plastics, I would probably say that you don’t even need to go looking for this stuff any more in order to find it. You don’t have to hop on a ship to the plastic gyres (there are officially five of them, but the latest talk is that there might also be one in the Arctic Ocean, in the Barents Sea region, where a stunningly high concentration of micro-plastic pollutants has recently been found). Plastic garbage will gladly find you, all by itself. If you eat fish, plastic garbage is probably waiting for you in your fridge.

A model cast from the body of a three-month old female Dall’s porpoise, which drowned after becoming entangled in floating plastic debris. (Photo: Olga Mironenko)

Going back to the 1990s and the first accounts of the North Pacific Garbage Patch by Charles Moore, it seems people gave little credit to his observations. But fast-forward to the present, when our trash has spread as far as the Arctic — which was assumed to be the last pristine spot on the globe — and it’s clear that things have developed much faster than our society, with all of its manufacturing, consumption and perception patterns, is prepared for.

So here are a few tips on things you can do to help solve this problem, from someone who ventured out and examined this problem first-hand:

  • Buy only Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified fish, or from local fishermen if you happen to live on the coast
  • Make your life as plastic-free as possible
  • Refrain from using items shipped across the planet, when possible. Go for local manufacturers
  • Spread the word

Stand up for your planet with your consumer choices — because in the end those choices are the very force that will either bring our marvelously blue planet to its demise, or help it recover.

A piece of scrap rope washed up on the beach of Newport, Oregon. Given time it will break down into a zillion microfibers that will spread over the planet, invading the spots we used to think of as pristine, such as the Arctic. (Photo: Olga Mironenko)