Studies of Plastic Pollution in the North Pacific and North Atlantic: Open Ocean and Beach Samples

DBH 1100
ChEMS Seminar

Featuring William J. Cooper, Ph.D.

Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering

The Henry Samueli School of Engineering, UC Irvine


For the last two years we have been examining the issue of plastic pollution in the World’s oceans. We have been on two cruises in the Atlantic, aboard the RV Atlantic Explorer out of Bermuda. We have also sailed from Honolulu to Long Beach aboard a 50’ catamaran, ORV Alguita.  These cruises were designed to obtain samples from the North Atlantic and North Pacific gyres.  Every time we have sampled we have collected plastics.  The results of these three cruises will be discussed. A separate study was designed to provide estimates of the extent of plastic pollution at two beach locations, southern California and Bermuda. In all we have examined one beach, Crystal Cove State Park, Orange County, in southern California and three beaches in Bermuda, Coopers Island, St Catherine’s and John Smiths Bay. These estimates are then compared to those reported previously for the Hawaiian Island chain. The samples were collected, sieved to three size fractions and sorted for pre- and post-production plastic, and styrofoam. As expected, at all beach sampling locations, the study confirmed that plastic pollution is extremely heterogeneous. From the limited sampling at Crystal Cove, n = 15 one meter square samples, there appears to be quantitative differences between those and the samples collected at three locations on Bermuda. In addition to estimates for plastic pollution, we are developing guidelines for citizen science that may allow beaches to be quantitatively sampled and compared in the future.

About the Speaker:

William J. Cooper, Ph.D., received his B.S. degree in chemistry from Allegheny College in 1969 and his thesis was in the area of the origin of oil under the direction of Dr. Max Blumer, Woods Hole Oceanography Institution.  He went to The Pennsylvania State University where he received his M.S. degree in fuel science (organic geochemistry) in March 1971 in the origin of coal. His studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in March 1971, and served as an enlisted (until Jan 1972), then an officer, and left active service as a Captain (1972 – 1975).  He then became a civilian and ran the water reuse program and funded the first international symposium on water reuse in 1979.  In 1980, he moved to Florida International University where he was the director of the Drinking Water Research Center and completed his Ph.D. degree at the University of Miami, 1987, in marine and atmospheric chemistry. In 1997, he moved to the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, as chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.  In 2006, he took his present position as director of University of California, Irvine’s Urban Water Research Center and professor of civil and environmental engineering.  His present research interests include carbon cycling in oceanic and fresh waters, the application of free radical chemistry for the treatment of emerging chemicals of concern and disinfection by-products, and, the application of advanced oxidation processes for the ship-board (oil tanker) control of invasive species. He has published over 225 papers and chapters in books, and edited eight books.