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February 15, 2011

Gyres Made of Plastic


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

The trip is put on by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, a non-profit in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Marcus Eriksen, Algalita's Director of Project Development (he's also a co-founder of Five Gyres) who's explored polluted gyres all over the world, will be leading an expedition for regular folks on a 72-foot sloop to the North Pacific Gyre. 

"We've been going to the North Pacific for a long time," Eriksen told me in a phone interview. "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 you sail through."

His 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.

"In 2003 I built a raft of plastic bottles and put it on the Mississippi River from Minnesota down to New Orleans, my home town. Along that route, I saw tons of plastic trash floating down America's greatest river. So I saw where it came from, I saw what we do to get access to it, and I saw its impact and where it goes."


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

There are no serious clean-up 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 clean-ups are gyre clean-ups. 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 a lot us, he does what he can. He said 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. 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. Net proceeds will support Algalita's scientific research and educational outreach.

(First photo credit: Jeffery Ernst; Photos courtesy Zan Dubin Scott.)

-- Brian Foley


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