Sailing the Plastic Seas

Millions of tons of broken-down plastic waste particles are floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch located in the North Pacific Gyre, a current in the Pacific Ocean between the California and Hawaii coasts. According to The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a full 80% of this floating plastic comes from land.In other words, much of this plastic waste reaches the water from littering that happens elsewhere. When plastic bottles, cups and bags are dropped in the street, for example, rain washes them into storms sewers. From there, they drift into rivers and are carried eventually to the ocean. The plastic waste floats around until it’s caught up in a gyre, a circular oceanic current system. There it will continue to swirl indefinitely, degraded over time by sun and salt water into smaller and smaller plastic pieces.

Birds and marine wildlife mistake these plastic chips for food, resulting in death via poisoning or from blocked digestive systems. UNEP estimates that 1,000,000 seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die yearly from plastic debris. And when fish consume plastic and the chemicals they contain, our health is compromised, too. These plastic chips or shreds contain toxic chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA) which has been tied to health problems ranging from attention deficit disorders and early-onset puberty to reproductive cancers.

The Gyres

The North Pacific Gyre is one of five gyres across the globe. Could patches of plastic like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch exist in the other four as well? The California-based nonprofit 5 Gyres is looking for answers. They’ve already sent members sailing 20,000 miles through the North Pacific, North Atlantic, Indian and South Atlantic Gyres, and they are currently concluding what has been the most extensive study of ocean plastic pollution ever undertaken in the South Pacific Gyre, which lies between Australia and South America. Their ship, the Sea Dragon, is set to arrive in Easter Island on April 7. Through research in areas like the South Pacific Gyre, where little data on plastic pollution exists, 5 Gyres seeks to ultimately communicate about the global impact of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and implement solutions in order to keep the problem from getting worse.

5 Gyres also collaborates with Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the United Nations Safe Planet campaign and Pangaea Exploration to discover the extent to which humans are being harmed from eating fish that have ingested BPA, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and other toxic chemicals contained in or absorbed by plastic. After arriving at Easter Island in April, the expedition will head to Tahiti, Hawaii, Los Angeles and Paris, and researchers will visit classrooms along the way to educate youth about plastic waste in the ocean and about how to protect our oceans by making smarter choices on land.

The organization has built numerous rafts from plastic bottles, including the Junkraft, made from 15,000 plastic bottles that sailed from California to Hawaii in 2008 in an effort to bring attention to the global issue of marine plastic pollution. In 2012, they plan on sailing a boat made entirely from plastic straws out of Paris.

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