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The Green Life: Wanna See the North Pacific Gyre's Trash Patch for Yourself? You Can.

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February 15, 2011

Wanna See the North Pacific Gyre's Trash Patch for Yourself? You Can.

Charles Moore underwater In recent years, plastic pollution in our oceans has gained a lot of attention. Some say the size of the "garbage patch" in the North Pacific is twice the size of Texas. Others aren't so sure about that estimate. But the plastic problem has taken on a life of its own. And there's an increasing trend of people venturing to gyres to see it with their own eyes.

Dr. Marcus Eriksen, a co-founder of Five Gyres who's explored polluted gyres all over the world, will be leading an expedition for regular folks aboard a 72-foot sloop to the North Pacific Gyre. The trip is in association with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

"We've been going to the North Pacific for a long time," Eriksen said. "But this is a chance to bring average citizens out there and see it for themselves. Once you see it, it's hard to deny it ever again. You see this endless soup of really tiny plastic particles."

Eriksen's work in this field began after his military service during the Persian Gulf War, when he "realized what civilization does to get energy and the raw material for plastic, such as petroleum," he said. "Ten years later when I was a teacher, I went to Midway Atoll with students. All the carcasses of birds had plastic coming out of their chests. I couldn't believe what I was seeing: cigarette lighters, toys, syringes, and tons of small, unrecognizable pieces of plastic.

Pulling rope People aboard the July 7-27 voyage will hoist sails, cook, collect samples from the "soup" to examine its chemical composition, and haul in bigger things left in oceans, like fishing nets. "This isn't a cleanup effort," Eriksen said. "But we will pick up what we find."

There are no serious cleanup efforts because of the magnitude of the problem. Gyres are enormous rotating currents that act as a vortex and suck in floating debris. Eriksen said the way to clean the gyres is to focus on beaches. "Beach cleanups are gyre cleanups. Gyres kick out trash constantly to nearby islands and mainland shores. If we can stop adding more, that's the solution."

With plastic being so ubiquitous in our way of living, it's hard for someone like Eriksen to avoid it. But like many of us, he does what he can. He refuses to use one-use forms of it, like straws and grocery bags. "If I'm at Starbucks, I'll ask for a for-here cup. It doesn't make sense that people stay in the shop to drink coffee with a to-go cup. That's ridiculous."

The Algalita voyage will meander between Honolulu and Vancouver for 20 days beginning July 7, and the deadline for the early-bird discount is Feb. 28. If you're interested in joining the trip or you want more details, click here. Proceeds will support Algalita's scientific-research and educational-outreach efforts.

--Brian Foley / photos courtesy Zan Dubin Scott and Jeffery Ernst

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