Our Story

Follow along from the invention of the first types of plastic to its proliferation in the ocean and environment, and learn how students and researchers at SEA have measured ocean plastics since the 1980s contributing to our understanding of ocean plastic pollution.

The invention of plastic…

In 1865, Alexander Parkes patented Parkesine, a synthetically modified form of cellulose known as celluloid, which is recognized as the first manufactured plastic. In 1907, Leo Baekeland produced Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic of commercial importance. Widespread commercial use of plastics began in the 1940s, after World War II spurred industrialization (Painter and Coleman, 2008).

Reports of interactions between wildlife and plastic debris…

In the 1960s, the first scientific report that seabirds had ingested plastic debris was published (Kenyon and Kridler, 1969)  and entanglement by seals in plastic netting was reported (Fowler 1987).

Plastics found at sea…

In 1971, Sea Education Association (SEA) was founded by Corwith “Cory” Cramer, Jr. and Edward “Sandy” MacArthur. They created a program for undergraduates to study the ocean from multiple perspectives while on a traditional sailing vessel. 

In the same year, scientists from neighboring Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found plastic pellets and fragments in samples collected in surface plankton net tows in the western North Atlantic Ocean (Carpenter and Smith, 1972). At least as early as the late 1970s, SEA faculty, shipboard crew, and students anecdotally reported small, floating pieces of plastic in the catch of their twice-daily plankton net tows in the western North Atlantic Ocean.

SEA begins collecting data…

In 1984, SEA students first began researching floating plastic debris on RV Westward, and SEA began routine data collection and sample archival of plastic debris (typically microplastics) collected in plankton nets towed at the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

The “neuston net”, still used today, has a rectangular mouth (0.5 x 1.0 meter in size) with a fine mesh (0.335 mm) designed to sample marine organisms and debris in the upper 25 centimeters of the water column. SEA vessels tow the net at the air-sea interface for 30 minutes while the vessel is moving at a speed of two knots, giving a tow length of one nautical mile.

In 1987, SEA launched SSV Corwith Cramer, which joined RV Westward in sampling the western North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea for floating plastic debris.

In 2001, SEA launched the SSV Robert C. Seamans, expanding academic programs and shipboard operations to the North and South Pacific Oceans, and collecting floating plastic debris using the same plankton net tow methodology.

SEA’s first scientific publications…

In 1987, SEA faculty member Jude Wilber published SEA’s earliest records of plastic debris, collected in the North Atlantic and Caribbean Sea and on beaches in Bermuda, in Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Oceanus magazine. Wilber found that the highest concentrations of floating plastics occurred in subtropical latitudes, consistent with known patterns of surface ocean circulation.

In 2010, SEA scientists published a scientific paper in Science on the 22-year data set of floating plastic debris collected in the North Atlantic and Caribbean Sea from 1986 to 2008. In addition to reaffirming Wilber’s (1987) result, that the highest concentrations of floating plastic debris were found far offshore in subtropical latitudes, Law et al. (2010) examined the trends in plastic concentration in this region over time.

A companion paper in the same year, led by SEA scientist Skye Morét-Ferguson, reported a first inventory of physical properties of debris collected in the North Atlantic, including the size, mass and composition of plastic particles (Morét-Ferguson et al. 2010).

Fig. 1. Distribution of plastic marine debris collected in 6,136 surface plankton net tows on annually repeated cruise tracks from 1986 to 2008 in the western North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

Fig. 2. Average plastic concentration (color shading, units of pieces per square kilometer) computed by averaging data in Figure 1 in one-degree bins, regridding into 5 min bins, and smoothing with a 600 km full-width Gaussian filter. Overlaid lines represent the accumulation zones described in three numerical ocean models, which were defined in each study using different criteria.

In 2014, SEA scientists published a scientific paper describing a plastic accumulation zone at the sea surface of the North Pacific subtropical ocean – the so-called “garbage patch”. They also demonstrated that outside of this region, in the tropical Pacific and on the equator, plastic concentrations are nearly zero. This pattern of high and low accumulation corresponds to ocean convergence and divergence zones that are well-predicted by oceanographic numerical models (Law et al. 2014).

SEA’s ocean plastics research expands…

In October 2010, SEA embarked on the first federally-funded research cruise studying plastic debris in the North Atlantic Ocean, with support from NOAA Marine Debris Program and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The Plastics at SEA: North Atlantic Expedition 2010 built upon SEA’s long-term data set by expanding the sampling region east from Bermuda to the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. Thirty-three crew members, who were SEA alumni volunteers, counted more than 48,000 plastic particles in 128 surface plankton net tows, finding the highest plastic concentration ever recorded (26 million particles per square kilometer) more than 2,000 miles offshore of the eastern U.S.

On this expedition, filmmaker Scott Elliott and SEA alumnus and expedition crew member Ben Schellpfeffer recorded footage for the documentary film, Into the Gyre, which was screened in numerous film festivals in the U.S. and abroad, winning multiple Best Film awards.

In October – November 2012, SEA carried out its second research cruise dedicated to studying ocean plastics, the Plastics at SEA: North Pacific Expedition 2012, which sailed from San Diego, CA to Honolulu, HI through the heart of the subtropical gyre, or “garbage patch”. This expedition was crewed by SEA alumni, who not only contributed to data collection but also served as videographers, K-12 and aquarium/museum outreach coordinators, and led specific research projects. The scientific objectives included detailed mapping of surface plastic concentrations inside and outside the gyre, as well as studies investigating aspects of the physical, chemical and biological impacts of plastic debris on the ocean ecosystem.

In 2012, a working group focused on marine debris was convened at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) with support from Ocean Conservancy. SEA Research Professor Kara Lavender Law co-led the group, with Professor Steven D. Gaines of UC-Santa Barbara, in addressing fundamental questions on the sources, distribution and impacts of marine debris – specifically plastics – in the global ocean. Outcomes of this working group included the first-ever estimate of plastic waste input from land to the ocean (Jambeck et al. 2015), a critical assessment of the ecological impacts of anthropogenic debris (Rochman et al. 2015) and estimates of the production, use and fate of all plastics made since 1950 (Geyer et al. 2017).

In the 2010s, SEA scientists pursued novel lines of research on ocean plastics with new collaborators from many different institutions, including:

  • Vertical transport of buoyant plastic by wind-driven mixing, with Tobias Kukulka (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; University of Delaware)
  • Microplastics ingestion in gooseneck barnacles, with Miriam C. Goldstein (Scripps Institution of Oceanography)
  • Microbial communities on plastic marine debris: the “Plastisphere”, with Tracy J. Mincer (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) and Linda Amaral-Zettler (Marine Biological Laboratory)
  • Environmental degradation and fragmentation of plastics, with Anthony Andrady (North Carolina State University)
  • Trends in microplastics measured in seabird bellies and floating in the North Atlantic, with Jan van Franeker (IMARES, Wageningen-UR, Netherlands)
  • Floating Litter and its Oceanic TranSport Analysis and Modelling (FLOTSAM; SCOR Working Group 153, multinational collaborators)

In 2020, SEA Research Professor Kara Lavender Law, collaborating with experts in waste management and scientists from Ocean Conservatory, published a study estimating the United States’ contribution of plastic waste to the environment (Law et al. 2020).

In 2022, a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), on which SEA Research Professor Kara Lavender Law served, published a Consensus Study Report entitled, Reckoning with the U.S. Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste.

Sharing knowledge to advance solutions…

Since 2010, when SEA’s long-term data set on floating plastics in the North Atlantic Ocean was first presented at an international oceanography conference, SEA scientists have participated in numerous interviews with radio, print and web journalists from international outlets including: National Public Radio, New York Times, BBC, Associated Press, National Geographic, Newsweek, Boston Globe, NBC News, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Al Jazeera, and many more.

SEA scientists have also given numerous presentations on their work on ocean plastics to audiences including K-12 students, undergraduate students, and specialized and public audiences. SEA scientists have mentored 10 high school students on science fair projects related to plastics, some of which were award-winning!

In 2015-2017, SEA Research Professor Kara Lavender Law served as a participant, panelist and speaker in a series of G7 and G20 workshops on action plans to combat marine litter, led by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety.

In 2018, SEA Research Professor Kara Lavender Law served as ​​a witness in the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Hearing: “Cleaning Up the Oceans: How to Reduce the Impact of Man-Made Trash on the Environment, Wildlife, and Human Health?” (Washington, DC, Sept. 26, 2018).

In 2021, SEA Research Professor Kara Lavender Law served as ​​a witness in the California State Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Informational Hearing: “Microplastics in our water and environment: understanding a growing pollution source” (Virtual session/Sacramento, CA, Mar. 2, 2021).

Where we are today…

Since 1984, SEA has carried out more than 14,000 plankton net tows, collecting more than 298,000 floating plastic particles in the ocean. SEA students, shipboard crew, and faculty continue to collect floating plastic debris on our sailing research vessels in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and Caribbean Sea.

The team in the SEA Plastics Lab works to better understand the sources, distribution, transport and fate of plastics in the ocean, beginning with the diverse polymers presently manufactured and following their pathways through use and disposal or loss to the environment. The team strives to communicate the state of knowledge to broad and diverse audiences, with the ultimate goal to prevent future pollution of our oceans and environment by plastics.

Carpenter E. J., K. Smith, 1972. Plastics on the Sargasso sea surface. Science. 4027, 1240-1241,  DOI: 10.1126/science.175.4027.1240

Fowler, C. W., 1987. Marine debris and northern fur seals: A case study, Mar. Pollut. Bull, 18, 326-335, DOI: 10.1016/s0025-326x(02)00220-5

Geyer, R., J. R. Jambeck and K. L. Law, 2017. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Sci. Adv. 3, e1700782,  doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782.

Jambeck, J. R., R. Geyer, C. Wilcox, T. R. Siegler, M. Perryman, A. Andrady, R. Narayan and K. L. Law, 2015.  Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean.  Science, 347, 768-771, doi:10.1126/science.1260352. Featured as #27 in the Altmetric Top 100 2015 list of widely discussed and shared academic papers.

Kenyon, K. W., E. Kridler, 1969. Laysan Albatrosses swallow indigestible matter, The Auk, 86, 339–343, doi:10.2307/4083505

Law, K. L., N. Starr, T. R. Siegler, J. R. Jambeck, N. J. Mallos, G. H. Leonard, 2020. The United States’ contribution of plastic waste to land and ocean. Sci. Adv. 6: eabd0288. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abd0288 (open access)

Law, K. L., S. E. Morét-Ferguson, D. S. Goodwin, E. R. Zettler, E. DeForce, T. Kukulka and G. Proskurowski, 2014.  Distribution of surface plastic debris in the eastern Pacific Ocean from an 11-year dataset.  Environ. Sci. Technol., 48, 4732-4738, doi:10.1021/es4053076.

Law, K. L., S. Morét-Ferguson, N. A. Maximenko, G. Proskurowski, E. E. Peacock, J. Hafner and C. M. Reddy, 2010.  Plastic accumulation in the North Atlantic subtropical gyre.  Science, 329, 1185-1188, doi:10.1126/science.1192321.

Morét-Ferguson, S., K. L. Law, G. Proskurowski, E. K. Murphy, E. E. Peacock and C. M. Reddy, 2010.  The size, mass, and composition of plastic debris in the western North Atlantic Ocean.  Mar. Poll. Bull., 60, 1873-1878, doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2010.07.020.

Painter, P. C., M. M. Coleman, 2008. The Early History of Polymers. Polym. Eng. Sci, 7–9.

Rochman, C., A. Tahir, S. Williams. et al., 2015. Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption. Sci Rep 5, 14340. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep14340

Wilber, J. R., 1987. Plastic in the North Atlantic. Oceanus, 30, 61-68.