By Charlie Wright
A subtropical gyre is a convergence of ocean currents that circulate and create a very large and slow moving vortex. There are five subtropical gyres: two in the Pacific Ocean, two in the Atlantic Ocean and one in the Indian Ocean, as well as several smaller polar gyres in Alaska and Antarctica (5 gyres). If you were to trawl the water within one of these gyres, “you [would] haul on deck a muddle of brown planktonic goop, the occasional fish, squid or Portuguese man-of-war – and, almost certainly, a generous sprinkling of colorful plastic particles, each no larger than your fingernail.” These flakes and particles act as sponges, soaking up persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, which are “potentially hazardous compounds that do not degrade easily and cling to any hard surface they find” (Jabr, Ferris). To the eye this does not seem as impressive as a giant dump sized heap of garbage floating in the ocean, but it is far more dangerous. Picture an array of sea dwelling species feasting on edible sized particles of toxic plastic. Ingestion of these particles can lead to various health problems and potentially a premature death. This is not a hypothetical but a dose of reality.
With that in mind it is hard not to ask how all this garbage reaches the ocean in the first place. According to a report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in 2009, 80% of oceanic plastic litter is from terrestrial sources which include: coastal waste dumps; rivers, lakes and ponds that are used as illegal dump sites; industrial facilities; medical waste; “river transport of waste from landfills and other inland sources;” beaches, piers, harbors, marinas, docks, riverbanks; and “coastal tourism involving recreational visitors and beach-goers;” while the remaining 20% is from maritime sources which include seafaring vessels, as well as drilling platforms and aquaculture installations. To the individual, this can be an overwhelming amount of waste production. It may even seem impossible to make a difference; but it can be done. We must embrace the ‘age-old’ idea of thinking globally, and acting locally.
A great example of this would be litter. As mentioned before, beaches are frequently littered with trash that is pulled into the ocean at high tide. Being conscious of what we bring to the beach and what we leave behind is an important first step. But litter can reach the ocean even when it is miles away. Any street litter anywhere can be washed into a storm drain and be carried into the ocean; in fact, it happens quite often. That little candy wrapper you threw on the sidewalk the other day may seem harmless but it is a potential sponge for those wonderful POPs that we discussed earlier. It would not take much for a loose piece of plastic like that candy wrapper to reach a storm drain and then, of course, be carried out to sea.
No matter where a piece of trash comes from or how it reaches the ocean, it is the currents that decide its destination. A piece of plastic waste could be brought to shore by a wave and dragged down the beaches circulating with the sand in a long shore current. It may then wash ashore waiting to be seagull food, or if we’re lucky, for an ocean conscious beach goer who will dispose of it properly. Or the piece of plastic might get dragged out to sea by a rip tide and eventually get caught in a subtropical gyre. Waste collects and builds up in these gyres continuously and, unless we make a change, without end. It takes around a decade for a given piece to complete one circulation, all while being pulled deeper into the gyre. With most materials this would not be a problem but since plastic does not degrade, it accumulates, and becomes a major hazard.
In the north pacific gyre the accumulation of trash is often referred to as an island twice the size of Texas. Although it is such a large mass of waste, it is not so neatly collected. The gyre is constantly moving and so is the plastic pollution caught inside. The waste is distributed and breaks down into smaller and smaller particles without changing its basic composition. With such a vast ocean and so large a collection of plastic waste accumulating, it would seem impossible to repair.
If the existence of this ‘plastic soup’ is not frightening enough, keep in mind that the production of plastic is constantly growing and more and more waste is pouring into the oceans everyday. There is no mustache-twirling villain or corporate fat cat plotting this destruction; it is the ever-increasing demand for these products that we all create. If change is to occur then it must start at home, at school, in the office, in all aspects of everyday life. There is little we can do to correct the damage that has already been done, but we can keep it from getting worse. So for the sake of tomorrow stand up and give the ocean a voice.
Jabr, Ferris. “Pollution-trawling voyage finds oceans plastic soup.” 25 Mar 2011.
Toxic Garbage Island video parts 1-3:
UNEP (2009) Marine Litter: A Global Challenge. Report by United Nations
Environmental Programme. [http://www.unep.org/regionalseas/marinelitter/