November 16, 2009
Sailing on the ‘plastic’ oceans
Former Cortland woman volunteers to research effects of waste in seas
Former Cortland resident Bonnie Monteleone went on two different sea voyages this past summer to study plastic waste that has accumulated in high concentrations in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
In the past couple of years she has become an unlikely scientific researcher and environmental advocate, and the work she has done as a volunteer has earned her national news media attention.
The plastic collects in gyres, which are strong circulating currents that are calm in the center like an eye of a storm.
The waste comes from intentional dumping, lost cargo from ships and plastic found on the streets that is washed or blown into waterways and washed out to sea, according to Monteleone.
Monteleone was born in Elmira, and she lived in Cortland for 14 years with her former husband, Charlie Monteleone. They owned Monteleone’s Pizzeria on 9 Main St., in the Beard Building. After her children went to college in North Carolina she decided to move to Wilmington, N.C. She worked part-time in the reservations department at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, before finding a full-time job as an administrative assistant in the university’s chemistry department.
While pursuing a master’s degree in the university’s graduate liberal studies program, Monteleone took a scientific writing course, during which she learned about the North Pacific Gyre.
Monteleone began doing research on the North Pacific Gyre and decided to make it the subject of her senior thesis. It led her to ask if the North Atlantic was also filled with plastic. She sent an e-mail to Algalita Marine Research Foundation, an organization that has studied the North Pacific Gyre, and said she was interested in volunteering.
In July she went on a boat called the Atlantic Explorer Research Vessel to look for a gyre in a part of the Atlantic Ocean called the Sargasso Sea near the coast of Bermuda. Little was known about the North Atlantic Gyre; most research had been done on the North Pacific Gyre, Monteleone said. The crew was not sure what they would find, but they discovered numerous plastic objects, including a motor oil bottle that had a trigger fish living inside of it, she said.
In September she went on another voyage to the more well known North Pacific Gyre in a boat called the Alguita with Capt. Charlie Moore, the founder and research coordinator of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. The crew found a floating telephone pole and a ball of fishing nets and ropes that they call a “ghost net,” a toilet seat, an umbrella handle, bottle caps, water bottles and fish that had swallowed bottle caps and other plastic objects.
The crew collected 52 samples of water and each sample came back with a high level of plastic particulates, or small plastic fragments, Monteleone said.
She wrote about her journeys in a blog, which can be found at theplasticocean.blogspot.com.
“Millions of tons of trash are accumulating as it photo degrades by the sun and is broken into bite-size pieces that emulate marine food. Marine life often times eat the smaller fragments or get entangled in the larger pieces and are suffering horrible deaths because of it. Or even worse, some live for years with plastics straps, fishing line or nets tangled around their necks and/or fins which eventually cause infections and possible amputation. The other driving force behind this research stems from my need to know, if fish are eating plastics and I eat fish, am I eating the chemicals found in plastics?”
In one case, Monteleone said, a sea turtle called Mae West had a round plastic milk jug ring wrapped around the center of its body. The ring caused the turtle to grow in the shape of a figure-eight, she said. Monteleone learned about the sea turtle in the early stages of her research, and it motivated her to learn more about the issue.
“I seriously couldn’t sleep. I was that bothered by it,” Monteleone said.
The biggest problems contributing to the gyres is the overuse of one-time-use plastics and that many modern products are made to break or become obsolete after a certain amount of time, a theory called planned obsolescence, she said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found that 80 percent of all plastic pollution in the ocean comes from land sources, Monteleone said.
“It’s just really because of our inability to manage our waste properly,” Monteleone said.
Next summer Monteleone plans to go to the South Pacific and back to the North Atlantic Gyre to continue her research. The faculty at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington has began studying the issue, which she attributes to the research she began as a secretary taking a scientific writing course.
“It didn’t start in the department,” she said. “It started in the main office.”
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