Fate of the 5 Gyres – Creation to Cleanup

Written by Christel Schultz

Discovered over a decade ago, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest,  and perhaps the most well known, of the five trash vortexes documented in our world oceans. The North Pacific Gyre, South Pacific Gyre, North Atlantic Gyre, South Atlantic Gyre, and Indian Ocean Gyre each occupy a relatively specific area of our seas. Regional currents create a swirling effect that essentially feeds trash, commonly referred to as marine debris, to each gyre. Some of the debris is deposited on land, especially on the remote beaches in Hawaii along the North Pacific Gyre. The sand may not be visible through all the material washed on shore in these locations – as much as 17 tons of debris is estimated to be picked up on Kamilo Point and adjacent beaches annually. Much of the circulating debris does make periodic landfall, but it is typically swept into the oceans again.

Graphic provided by The Ocean Cleanup

The gyres continue to accumulate mass since much of the material, particularly plastic, is not biodegradable. Plastics comprise 80% of all waste that collects in the oceans, and they do not break down in a manner that is beneficial to the marine environment. Prolonged exposure to the sun results in photodegradation; the plastics ultimately form very tiny pieces of microplastic.  The fact that a sea turtle can mistake a plastic bag for a jellyfish, one of it favorite foods, may not seem difficult to fathom. The reality that discarded fishing nets entangle, and unintentionally kill, a multitude of ocean creatures may be familiar. The truth about microplastics is that you cannot see most of them, so it is challenging to comprehend their significance, but they are extremely pervasive throughout our oceans. Some plastics float on the surface, some sink to the ocean floor, and others remain dispersed throughout the water column in between. This mass of tiny pieces forms a type of cloud in the water that blocks out sunlight essential to the existence of plankton and algae. This disrupts the base of the food chain. In fact, the plastic to plankton ratio in the North Pacific alone is increasing rapidly. Studies conducted in 1999 revealed a 6:1 ratio, and by 2007, that had increased to 36:1. Plastic has entered the food chain, and it is not going away. This means that not only do smaller sea creatures and birds ingest plastic, but they are likely to be consumed by larger animals that could end up on your dinner table.

Plastic pollution also impacts our fresh water lakes and rivers. The volume of refuse present in some waterways adjoining highly populated or industrial areas may rival those concentrations within the five gyres. Debris of various kinds makes its way down streets and river banks, into storm drains, and so on. Ultimately, though, our oceans are always downstream, and they have become the global landfill. The overall problem is that identifying the source of this material, or even the country of origin, is not feasible in the ocean, so the focus has somewhat shifted to upstream intervention. This includes the application of zero waste strategies, identification and management of microplastic sources, waste reduction and recovery prior to loss to the environment. Eliminating the issue closer to the source is an essential preventative measure, and as a global society, we have become more aware of this. The fact remains that our oceans cannot recover on their own.

We may have caused the problem, and it may be extensive, but we are capable of devising solutions, and every step counts. Personally, you can choose a reusable container over bottled water, take fabric shopping bags to the store, pick up trash on your next trip to the park, or even organize a community beach cleanup if you live in a coastal area. Each of us can be resourceful in our own way! Through unique combinations of technology, passion, science, and innovation, human beings from all walks of life are contributing to the cleanup effort. I am encouraged by the heart and enthusiasm behind the concepts being developed and implemented toward our common goal! There are too many things to share all at  once, so here is a selected handful for now – read on, be inspired and share:By purchasing a 4Ocean Bracelet, you will remove one pound of trash from the ocean through beach cleanups and ocean cleanups worldwide.


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Article featured on Inhabit.comDesign for a better world

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