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Searching for plastic pollution in the South Pacific Gyre

A NOAA graphic shows the five major ocean gyres.

Environmental voyage under way with the goal of calling attention to ocean pollution

By Summit Voice

Capping the most extensive study of ocean plastic pollution ever undertaken, pioneering researchers with the5 Gyres Institute set sail March 19 to journey through the South Pacific Gyre, one of the massive swirling areas of the ocean where plastic pollution accumulates.

The crew will sail over 2,000 miles from Valdivia, Chile, zig-zagging through the gyre, arriving at Easter Island on April 7, then sailing onward to Tahiti on May 10.

“We want to show that this is a global problem and to inspire international cooperation,” says Anna Cummins, who co-founded 5 Gyres with Dr. Marcus Eriksen. “Every country in the world is contributing to the problem and thus needs to be actively involved in solutions that reduce the flow of plastic to our oceans.”

Little data on plastic in this region exists, but the researchers expect to find the same kind of plastic pollution they found in every sample of the sea surface they’ve taken while sailing 20,000 miles through gyres in the North Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
The plastic debris is harmful to marine life, can be a navigational hazard, and may threaten human health.

No other researchers have sailed through all of the world’s five subtropical gyres. 5 Gyres’s goal is to document the problem, bring it to world attention and foster solutions.

Most ocean plastic pollution takes the form of tiny plastic fragments resulting from degraded derelict fishing gear or from plastic waste flowing out to sea from land. Sea turtles, marine mammals, birds and fish ingest these plastic particles, causing entanglement or accumulation of synthetic chemicals in their bodies from the plastic in their gut. The pollution can also kill seabirds and marine mammals that die from drowning, starvation, or dehydration, their bellies being full of plastic mistaken for food.

5 Gyres is also studying whether humans are being harmed by eating fish that have ingested debris contaminated with PCBs, DDT, and other toxins. The nonprofit organization is collaborating with Algalita Marine Research Foundation and Pangaea Explorations, and working with the United Nations’ Safe Planet campaign.

While the marine debris problem is typically described as a well defined “garbage patch,” plastic pollution at sea takes the form of a thin, diffuse soup.  Either way, it cannot be cleaned up at sea by any practical means.

“If we stop allowing plastic waste to leave land, the ocean will eventually regurgitate plastic pollution from the gyres. Beach cleanup is gyre cleanup,” Eriksen said.

Society must indeed stop the problem at its source, the researchers stress. They also advocate improving the recyclability of plastics, legislation requiring companies to take responsibility for recovery and reuse of their products, and curbs on single-use disposable products.

About 5 Gyres Institute5 Gyres Institute is a nonprofit organization committed to meaningful change through research and education. 5 Gyres disseminates its findings through lectures and traveling exhibits, and raises awareness of ocean plastic pollution through expeditions, including that aboard JUNKraft, the boat built in 2008 of 15,000 plastic bottles. It collaborates with Algalita Marine Research Foundation and Pangaea Explorations, which provide it with a marine laboratory and research vessel, respectively. After studying the five subtropical gyres, 5 Gyres will monitor these vortexes through continued expeditions, and the Traveling Trawl Program, which loans research equipment to volunteer “citizen scientists.”

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2 Responses

  1. [...] the Summit County Citizens Voice comes a report about the 5 Gyres Institute’s voyage through the South Pacific Gyre.  The [...]

  2. Like many other folks, I thought plastics didn’t degrade for eons. So they were ugly, but not toxic. Even worse than their unsightliness, however, is the deadly chemicals they release into the water as they break down. The links in this article are well worth a click to learn more.

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