Plastics at SEA: Part II

On October 3, 2012 OMSI Educator Emilee Monson embarked on a ocean-bound trip along with 37 other scientists, teachers, students, and sailors. The Plastics at SEA: North Pacific Expedition was a scientific research study conducted by Sea Education Association (SEA) and dedicated to studying the effects of plastic marine debris in the ocean ecosystem. The expedition also aimed to provide updates of floating plastic concentrations in the region known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch".

You can find Emilee presenting demos about plastics and the ocean environment in OMSI's Earth Hall on Saturdays.


Below is the second part of a conversation with Emilee after her return to Portland and OMSI. You can read the first part here.

Q: When and how did the plastic content in the Pacific Ocean get recognized?

Charles Moore has called a lot of attention to this subject. He is a strong advocate against single use items, and has even given a TED Talk about it. Somewhere along the line, the media started referring to the gyre as a garbage patch “island” the size of Texas. It seemed like for a long time the images you would find if you googled North Pacific Garbage Patch were actually coastal pictures with large pieces of debris. The image many people have in their minds is of a floating island of plastic that boats have to wade through.

What we want to do here at OMSI is to dispel that misconception. We want to show people what the actual problem is in the gyre. It turns out that when plastic is out in the ocean, it gets brittle and quickly breaks apart. That’s why the samples we collected contained such small pieces of plastic. Although that is less of an aesthetic problem, it is a very serious ecological problem.

Q: What kind of a role does a museum like OMSI have in educating the public about plastics in our oceans?

We want to give people an accurate picture of what is out there. Most of the plastic we found was #2 (HDPE). This is the type of plastic you find in milk jugs or laundry soap containers. We didn’t find #1 (PET) because it doesn’t float – it sinks. That’s what you find in plastic soda or water bottles. The plastic out there is mixed in with biomass and the pieces can be as fine as sand. I want to start a conversation about plastic in general. Let’s take a good look at how we’re using it, and ask how we should be using it.


There are two large phylums of plastics: durable and non-durable goods. We often call non-durable goods single use items. Many single use items can be melted down and reshaped but each time we do that we have to mix the used plastic with virgin plastic for it to retain its desired traits. We’re familiar with these plastics as our 1-6 recyclables.

Then there’s another stream of plastic - the durable goods. These are plastics that are really resins. They can be molded and shaped once, and are not able to be remolded again. A lot of stuff you find in your kitchen is made out of this kind of plastic. Computers and cars have a lot of this kind of plastic in them too.

Q: What small steps can people at home make to reduce their impact on the environment, when it comes to plastics?

The first step is to notice where plastics are in your life. Be intentional. If there’s a choice between buying something in a plastic jar or a glass jar, and everything else is equal, choose the glass jar. Then reuse the glass jar. That’s an easy thing to do. Look at a few different areas where you can reduce or eliminate plastic. Ask yourself how it feels when you begin to do things differently. You can pack your own lunch for work instead of buying a quick deli item wrapped in plastic. Use your own to-go containers and silverware. The biggest thing is to look at where you’re using it. You won’t be able to get rid of all of it. I can’t even get rid of all of it.

A big thing for me are coffee to-go lids. A lot of people don’t realize this but coffee to-go lids are made out of the same stuff as Styrofoam, just not puffed up. We hear a lot about how Styrofoam is bad and can’t be recycled. Coffee lids are made from plastic #6, and have a PS marking on them for polystyrene. Styrofoam is a foam version of polystyrene. I try and make a habit of having a to-go mug with me, but even when I don’t, I skip the lid. But to tell you the truth, I’m still trying to figure out what I want my relationship with plastic to be.


Q: Do you think we can eventually replace items currently being made with plastic with plant-based materials?

It could be done. But it’s tricky. There is a trade-off because of the energy that goes into making these products and the land we have to use to grow them. Do we want to dedicate crops to making single use items that take 5 years to decompose in an industrial composting plant? The easiest answer is to reduce our dependence on single-use items. I hope in the future we become a lot more intentional about single use items. In a hospital it makes sense. A quick deli salad in a plastic container with a plastic fork in a plastic bag makes less sense to me. It’s my hope that we will decide together that that’s not what we want our relationship with plastic to be. In the mean time, I bring my own lunch.

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