Plastic, Plastic Everywhere: Alumna’s Voyage Yields 69,566 Bits

 Kimberly McCabe ’07

Kimberly McCabe ’07

When Kimberly McCabe ’07 heard that the Sea Education Association was looking for 26 researchers to spend a month at sea, painstakingly cataloguing plastic debris in the Pacific, she knew she had to be on the boat.

A visitor education specialist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, McCabe hates plastic.

“I don’t drink soda or bottled water. I bring bamboo utensils wherever I go. I make my own produce bags. I store everything in Mason jars,” she said. Her enthusiasm – and, she says, a promise to bring SEA’s message back to aquarium visitors – got her a berth on the research vessel.

The team traversed the Pacific from San Diego to Honolulu last fall, gathering sea water regularly and counting every bit of debris in it. They culled 69,566 bits of plastic – 95 percent of it no larger than a fingernail and some of it microscopic. The particles are tiny because the sun damages the plastic and breaks it into smaller pieces.

Even McCabe was astounded.

“Let me tell you, there is a LOT of plastic out there. Seeing it in one of the most remote regions of the planet suddenly made the planet seem quite small,” she said.

She wrote in an aquarium blog after the expedition, “The Giant Pacific Garbage Patch is a large area of plastic soup, seasoned liberally with tiny floating plastic bits and the occasional larger dumpling, like a buoy or a capped bottle.” The entire crew also kept a blog during the trip, Plastics at SEA 2012.

The plastic particles can be ingested at every level of the food web, from zooplankton to albatross to whales and even humans, McCabe said. These particles attract toxins, making them even more harmful if ingested. Removing all the plastic from the ocean would be impossible. Instead, we can focus on reducing the sources of ocean debris, McCabe said.

True to her word, McCabe helped develop tactics for sharing the expedition’s findings. At the aquarium, where she coincidentally works with three other Connecticut College alumnae (Janan Evans-Wilent ’11, Hannah Stinson Pickard ’04 and Johanna Blasi ’99), McCabe shows water samples to visitors and teaches them about the impact of plastic on ocean health. She also speaks to students at local high schools.

“Education is our most powerful tool for change,” McCabe said. “We are raising a ‘green’ generation who can learn to treat both the environment and their own bodies with more care and respect.”

McCabe is also conducting her own experiment this year: she’s keeping track of every piece of plastic waste she produces and blogging about it at