Plastic in the ocean by Benjamin Von Wong

Learn about PolarQuest’s plan to explore a new Microplastic Island

Every year, about 300 million metric tons of plastic are produced, and great part of it is scattered in the environment and in particular in the oceans. The oceans are dominated by currents and patterns of water circulation. The currents drive together marine life and nutrients. But with human interference, they are also a cause for alarm as they assist in the accumulation of marine debris and garbage as well. Gyres, for example, form when ocean currents create a circular pattern of water movement, allowing things to congregate in the middle. So, according to this, what does it concretely means for plastic garbage?

Marine debris or marine litter is defined as any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of, or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment. Great part of it is made of plastic, either visible or invisible to the naked eye: big pieces of plastic fragment into smaller ones, called microplastics, which are difficult to remove from the ocean and are a threat to the diverse marine food webs and ecosystems. Their longevity means that they can be distributed over huge distances from their origin, and accumulate in remote areas. In fact, sea currents are the highways of the oceans. Vortexes and downwellings work as a trap for marine debris, creating huge garbage patches, also called microplastic islands.

There are five of microplastic islands distributed in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Studies show that there should be a sixth one in the Arctic, a gateway for microplastics situated near the Beaufort Gyre, a wind-driven ocean current located in the Arctic Ocean region, and in the Iceland Sea, where the East Icelandic current makes a loop near a known downwelling. But numerical observations have to be validated by real data. Polarquest2018 is taking that challenge by going to the Arctic to carry out microplastics sampling for data analysis. Samples will be sent to the CNR-ISMAR laboratory in Lerici (Italy) to be analysed by our expert Stefano Aliani and his team.

Last March, Stefano Aliani took part in the Sixth International Marine Debris Conference held in San Diego, the annual meeting of the world’s microplastics expert. Another interesting project presented at the conference is carried by the European Space Agency (ESA), who is willing to assess the feasibility of direct optical measurement of seaborne plastic waste from satellites. “We’re not talking about actually spotting floating litter items but instead to identify a distinct spectral signature of plastic picked up from orbit, in the same way that processing software can today pick out concentrations of phytoplankton, suspended sediments and water-borne pollution,” said Paolo Corradi (ESA). Initial results were presented at the conference. The ultimate goal might be an actual global map showing litter concentrations: “Simulations are all well and good, but an image based on actual measurements would provide important insights to scientists and would hold greater power for the public and policymakers.”

However, monitoring is not a goal in itself, but a means to show the scale of the problem, and start to try and solve it. So, what can we do? The question is complex. Plastic is necessary to our modern technologies. Its production and industry has grown fast and it’s now a pillar of economics and society. But if we can’t eliminate it from our lives, we can at least eliminate the unnecessary mass production, like single-use plastic, according to Aliani: “We can’t clean the oceans from plastic if we don’t change the way we use it. That’s impossible. If you have a bucket full of water and you want to empty it, the first thing you do is close the tap.”

Article by Safiria Buono

Recipe: How to sample microplastics in the ocean

PolarQuest team review Mantanet procedure.

On March 2018, expedition leader Paola Catapano and mantanet scientist Safiria Buono went to Lerici to meet Polarquest’s microplatics expert Stefano Aliani for a training, focusing on how to sample microplastics on board Nanuq during our summer expedition. First of all, we need to know that there are two different ways to do so. The first, is the “Mantanet sampling”, ideal when the sea is smooth and there is not too much ice on the water surface, so that the mantanet is not damaged and the concentration of the debris is not altered by the waves. The second, the “bottle sampling”, is implemented when the mantanet can’t be used due to weather and ice conditions. So, what’s the recipe?


There are specific materials that we need to prepare and ship on board Nanuq.

A. BOTTLE sampling

  1. Three 1lt (plastic or metal) bottles
  2. 40 microns metal mesh to make 100 round or square filters a bit larger than bottle cap (supplier provided)
  3. 100 vials to store samples (rolled mesh)
  4. Metal funnel
  5. 10 litres metal bucket

B. MANTANET sampling

  1. Mantanet
  2. Replaceable meshes
  3. 100 bigger vials to store samples
  4. Box to store vials
  5. Thin net piece to filter water to clean manta samples and sample collector between each sampling

C. For both BOTTLE and MANTANET sampling

  1. Indelible pen/thin marker (old slide style)
  2. Paper labels to stick on vials
  3. Plastic bags with zips to store vials
  4. Pink alcohol (70%)
  5. Spray bottle filled with filtered sea water
  6. Cotton or TYVEX jumper/coat (DO NOT WEAR PILE!)
  7. GLOVES (mechanic)
  8. Logbook
  9. Thermometer for water temperature


  • Cut the bottom out, being very careful to do a uniform cut (to avoid sample pollution)
  • Put in oven to decontaminate
  • Cut hole in cap
  • Unscrew cap, position filter, screw cap again
  • Ideally, check that cap is not contaminated under microscope
  • Perform this operation in clean place with no air conditioning


  1. 3 sampling per station have to be done everyday on a regular basis: 3 buckets per sample x3
  2. Make a stations map
  3. Collect samples with bucket upwind, to avoid polluting sample, towards the front of the boat, from surface water
  4. Do not wear pile, but cotton or tyvex overcoat
  5. Take station coordinates and date and time of sampling
  6. Filter the bottle with sea water from 10 l bucket without overflowing
  7. Detach filter with great caution not to pollute filter
  8. Roll filter and insert in alcohol-filled vials
  9. Close vial and stick label with station # and date and time of sampling
  10. Put vial in plastic bag, zip it and store in clean not too cold not too warm storage place
  11. Fill logbook with: Station #; Station coordinates; Date and time; Water temperature; Name of sampling person and what they were wearing (colour); Comment on weather and sea conditions; Special remarks (ice presence, stinky sample, contamination risks taken, if any)


  1. Check if there is ice around (ice may break plastic samples during towing); if not, stop the boat
  2. Take station coordinates and time of sampling at beginning of towing
  3. Deploy manta from upwind side of boat
  4. Tow the manta at slow speed, 2 to max 4 kn, for 30’
  5. Get manta back on board
  6. Wash tail part of manta (sample collector) with filtered water (place a piece of net between shower tap and sample collector)
  7. Collect sample by opening switch at bottom of collector and placing filter (can be a piece of metal net or a metal filter) under water flow; move samples to vial.
  8. Close vial and stick label with station # and date and time of sampling
  9. Store vials into box placed in clean place at moderate temperature (not too hot, not too cold) – box or zipped plastic bags
  10. Wash filter and manta sample collector with shower through net filter or filtered sea water
  11. Take GPS coordinates and time at end of towing
  12. Fill logbook with: Station #; Station coordinates; Date and time; Name of sampling person; Comment on weather and sea conditions; Special remarks: ice presence, stinky sample, contamination risks taken if any; Ideally boat speed; Write any mistake you make or contamination (and take action to avoid that the following time)