The Five Gyres: Where Does Your Plastic End Up?

Carly Stines 

As humans, we continue to produce materials that do not biodegrade, or break down, in our ecosystems. As a result, we have literally tons of human made products continuously circling the ocean and affecting marine life in various ways. One of these products that continues to wreak havoc and gain attention is plastic, specifically single-use plastics. Plastic comes in many different forms: bags, bottles, straws, utensils, coffee cups, toothbrushes, and so much more. Although many of these plastics do break down in less than a thousand years, they remain in the environment, simply becoming smaller and increasingly easier for marine life to ingest. These miniscule pieces of broken-down plastic pollution are known as microplastics. 

Nearly all plastic ever created exists in some form today, whether it is partially broken down in a landfill or floating around as microplastics in the ocean, or maybe even recycled and made into something new. According to a 2020 Greenpeace report, approximately 260 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year, and it is estimated that about 10% ends up in the ocean. This has led to alarming predictions, such as, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight, in the year 2050. 

Much of this plastic, along with all the other trash and marine debris, can be found accumulating in the ocean’s gyres. Gyres are large circulating ocean currents; you can think of them like extremely slow-moving whirlpools. The circulation of these gyres is caused by global wind patterns, the Earth’s rotation, and Earth’s landmasses. There are five different gyres that have a significant impact on the ocean that we know of so far. They are the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, and Indian Ocean Gyres. 

The North Pacific Gyre is by far the most infamous, now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and is located between Hawaii and California. While many describe the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as a “Texas-sized island,” the 5 Gyres Institute refuted this point, saying that plastic in the ocean is more like smog rather than an island. The Garbage Patch was discovered by Captain Charles Moore in 1997. Charles Moore has continued researching and raising awareness through his environmental organization, Algalita Marine Research Foundation, and by working with other researchers, such as the Executive Director of Plastic Ocean Project in Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S., Bonnie Monteleone.

When asked about her trip to the garbage patch with Charles Moore in 2009, Ms. Monteleone recalls that after taking about twenty samples from the patch, she hoped to throw the net overboard and not find any plastic in the net. Over fifty samples later, every single one had brought in pieces of plastic. “It was my most sobering moment,” Ms. Monteleone said, “to see the remnants of man in the most remote places on the planet.” 

So, what does this mean for marine wildlife and ecosystems? Well, as the plastic continues to break down further and further, it becomes more and more bioavailable to other organisms, even those as small as plankton. Many marine animals other than plankton also carry microplastics in their body, and when they are eaten by other animals, those microplastics are ingested. This is a process called ‘trophic transfer’ and allows this trash to move through the food chain. Eventually, the cycle will return back to the source, when humans ingest seafood. It is ironic that the trash that we throw away thinking we will never see again, ends up right back on our plates. In Charles Moore’s 2009 TED Talk, he said, “Only humans make waste that nature can’t digest.” It is up to us to make a change, so we don’t continue to literally digest these harmful microplastics along with our ocean friends. 

However, not all hope is lost. Not only do we have organizations such as Charles Moore’s Algalita Marine Research Foundation and Bonnie Monteleone’s Plastic Ocean Project taking action, but we also have organizations working to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A project created by The Ocean Cleanup has designed a passive system that is estimated to remove 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in about five years without disturbing the surrounding ecosystem or wildlife. The main challenge of removing plastic is that the pollution is spread across millions of square kilometers in all directions. In order to combat this, The Ocean Cleanup plans to concentrate the plastic with a combination of natural forces and a sea anchor to create drag. This allows the system to move slower than the plastic, enabling it to be captured by the netting system. Luckily, their systems value the protection of the natural environment and are taking action throughout their projects to safeguard sea life. 

While this problem may seem daunting and far away to the majority of people, it is not too late to make a change in the way we live. There are a few easy habits you can begin to incorporate into your own life that will allow you to make a difference no matter where you live. Many of these solutions simply entail rethinking the way you shop or the products you frequently use. Some of the best advice given by Bonnie Monteleone, which can be easily incorporated into your shopping routine, is to ask yourself when buying something, where will this end up? When visiting your local coffee shop and deciding whether or not to pick up a plastic straw, ask yourself where will this straw end up? The answer looks something like tiny pieces of plastic floating around in the ocean in a couple thousand years. 

Before you make a purchase, think about the lifetime each product may have. While a typical single-use plastic straw ‘lives’ for the twenty minutes you drink your coffee, a reusable metal straw has a life of many years and many, many morning lattes. This example can be related to a variety of other single-use items such as bags, water bottles, straws, utensils, cups, takeout containers, disposable diapers, disposable razors, toothbrushes, and much more. By switching the way you see these products, you will be able to create a more sustainable lifestyle that will in turn positively impact the ocean and hopefully slow the growth of the five gyres. 

Sources: Greenpeace, National Geographic, NOAA, The Ocean Cleanup, Plastic Pollution, Plastic Soup Foundation, World Wildlife Fund