What You DON’T Know About the North Pacific Gyre

Jun 28, 2011 4:00 PM ET
Sample of Plastics2 (Project Kaisei).jpg

What You DON’T know about the North Pacific Gyre (aka Plastic Vortex)

Take a walk along almost any beach around the world and you’ll notice a disturbing trend: plastic particles are everywhere. Remnants of bottle caps and rings, disposable lighters, toys, bags and flip-flops can be found even on some of the most pristine beaches. Over-consumption of single use and non-recyclable plastic products is creating a highway for plastic marine pollution to enter the human food chain.    Most of us have, by now, heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Some may even have read that there actually is no “garbage island twice the size of Texas.” So what’s the real deal behind the trash of mythic proportions?   After working for nearly a year with Project Kaisei, an ocean cleanup initiative of Ocean Voyages Institute, and digging deep into research about ocean plastic pollution, Cohn & Wolfe sets the story straight with a few things you probably DON’T know about the North Pacific Gyre.  
  • It’s not the only one in the world. All five major gyres around the world contain plastic debris. Gyres are giant systems of spiraling seawater formed by currents that move naturally throughout the world’s oceans. Natural and man-made pollutants are carried by the currents from one area to another. This debris attracts small plastic particles and other toxins along the way before eventually building up in zones where cold and warm waters converge. 

  • Pollutants take years to reach the gyres. Unlike natural products that biodegrade, plastic photodegrades, which means it breaks down into smaller and smaller particles. Particles large and small are ushered around by currents for thousands of miles before either being deposited in gyres or on beaches around the planet. You may recall the story of the rogue rubber ducks which, after being lost at sea for nearly 20 years began popping up on beaches in Britain, Canada, Iceland and New England. Interestingly, these toys helped scientists better understand the flow and convergence of oceanic currents and how they contribute to the formation of “garbage patches.”

  • The ‘patch’ is more of a soup than an island. When we hear the term “garbage patch” many of us imagine a dense mass resembling something of a trash island. But while there is no actual island to be observed on Google Earth, the problem is much more sinister. The plastic pieces found in the gyres look more like colorful confetti spread out over millions of miles of ocean. As the pieces break down and continue to swirl in a gyre they pose an imminent danger to marine life that often mistakes it for food. Based on scientific research it is estimated there are 200,000 pieces of plastic particles per square kilometer in the North Pacific Gyre alone, the highest concentration of ocean pollution in the world.

  • The most dangerous plastic pollution is invisible. The size and scope of plastic oceanic pollution continues to fuel debate among scientists, researchers and academics. Some claim that there is more plastic than zoo-plankton in the North Pacific Gyre, while others contend the problem is exaggerated. No matter what side of the debate you find yourself on, the fact is that some of the most dangerous plastic particles are too small to see without a microscope. This makes them perfect fodder for small fish who mistake the tiny pieces for plankton. Studies of Lanternfish, the most common fish in our oceans and major food source for larger fish like tuna, revealed that 35% of the sample contained up to 80 pieces of plastic in their stomachs.

  This summer Project Kaisei will continue its research and cleanup efforts of the North Pacific Gyre during a third expedition aboard the iconic Kaisei ship. To help fund this voyage the non-profit group partnered with Cohn & Wolfe to create the “Save Kai” Facebook campaign. For more information visit www.projectkaisei.org and follow on Twitter.   CW14924