Penn Compact 2020/

Engage Locally, Nationally and Globally: Oceans of Plastic

Roman Shor, C’09, EAS’09, GEng’10, didn’t expect to see piles of floating litter when he set off on the Plastics at SEA expedition, the first federally funded venture to study the accumulation of plastics in the North Atlantic Ocean. He already knew that the term commonly used to describe the debris—“garbage patch”—is a misnomer. The plastics he encountered on the voyage were, in fact, tiny: no bigger than a fingernail in most cases. But the garbage was definitely there—an incalculable number of miniscule bits of plastic that had amassed in a swirl of ocean currents near Bermuda.

Shor, a doctoral student in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and a Penn mathematics and computer science alumnus, was one of 33 crew members who took part in a landmark study organized by the Sea Education Association (SEA). All hands served as both field scientists and crew aboard SEA’s vessel, the SSV Corwith Cramer, which departed last summer from Bermuda on June 10 and returned on July 14. The volunteers were all veterans of previous SEA expeditions—recent college grads as well as mid-career professionals—selected from a pool of 100 applicants interested in plastic-pollution research.


Plastic—primarily polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene—accumulates in specific regions of the oceans carried by currents all over the world, according to SEA. The most notorious of these oceanic plastic debris concentrations is located in the eastern North Pacific Ocean and is dubbed the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Shor saw the Pacific patch in his sophomore year while on a 40-day SEA Semester. For Shor, an avid rower who grew up in Telluride, Colo., it was his first time sailing on the ocean, and the experience sparked his interest in oceanography.

“We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the surface of the ocean,” he says. “Even the most high-tech equipment we have doesn’t show us what’s really there. It’s still a great unknown.”

SEA has been studying the Pacific garbage patch and its lesser-known counterpart in the North Atlantic, southeast of Bermuda, since 1986. The debris patches gathered up by the currents are more accurately described as regions, and they have yet to be reliably measured due to changing currents and ocean conditions.

Many questions remain about the presence of plastic in the ocean. Much of the plastic that finds its way there comes from litter and runoff. Shor says he was initially surprised by the small size of the plastic particles. “The interesting thing about plastic is it just gets smaller—it doesn’t disappear,” he explains. “That’s the current theory, at least.” Researchers say it’s impossible to tell what each bit of plastic was or what it came from before the larger object broke down.

Continue reading at: