Around And Around She Goes

By Chris Landers

Our oceans' natural currents corral almost everything that floats into the center of "gyres" in which reside an expansive soup of spiraling plastic particles and other debris.

You may have heard or read about an area in the North Pacific where large marine debris fields of trash congregate, forming a vast mass of floating plastic garbage. While there are a lot of misconceptions about the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the phenomenon is real.

Map of prevailing wind patterns North and South Pacific, and North and South Atlantic, and in the Indian Ocean

The prevailing wind and current patterns around the globe create five, roughly circular patterns known as gyres. These patterns are present in the North and South Pacific, and North and South Atlantic, and in the Indian Ocean. They create an outer ring of activity, surrounding a relatively calm zone in the middle. These centers are lousy for navigation purposes — there's little wind and current to propel ships — and there are few large fish there, so historically, there hasn't been much reason to go. The Sargasso Sea, in the North Atlantic, inhabiting the center of the North Atlantic Gyre, is a good example. It gets its name from the accumulation of sargassum seaweed, and is home to the famous, ship-stranding Doldrums. Legends have grown up around the North Atlantic Gyre, some involving sea monsters, but the cause of the sargasso accumulations are pretty straightforward.

If you've ever washed dishes in a sink, you've seen what happens when you pull the plug: The water swirls around as it drains, collecting all the bits of food as it goes, and whatever doesn't hit the edge as it passes will eventually wind up at the center of the drain. The gyres are a much larger and more complex version of the same thing. If something floats in the ocean long enough without being carried ashore, it will end up in one of the gyres. The bad news is that there's no drain, so whatever is collected, whether seaweed or trash, stays there. The seaweed doesn't present a problem, but the trash, particularly plastic trash, does.

Elevated deposits of trash have been found in the North Pacific and Atlantic gyres, and the North Pacific in particular has captured the public imagination since it was discovered in 1997 by a boater, Charles Moore, who later wrote "as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic." An oceanographer friend of Moore's coined the term "garbage patch," and despite attempts to come up with a more correct term, the name stuck.

Plastic is an extremely important part of our lives, and it's here to stay. Our boats are made of plastic, as are many of the building materials in our homes, and the myriad components in almost every piece of equipment we own. Plastics have revolutionized all aspects of how we live and work. In most cases it's not the product itself that's the problem, it's the way we use and dispose of it.

Plastic is a petrochemical. It may break up into small pieces, called microplastic, but it does not biodegrade. Other than the small amount of plastic that's burned, every ounce of plastic ever made is still on our planet somewhere. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States generated more than 31 million tons of plastic waste in 2010, and recycled less than 8 percent of it. It's been estimated that, worldwide, around 10 million tons of plastic trash wind up as marine debris. The plastic that ends up in the ocean breaks up over time, so rather than a sea of floating bottles, the North Pacific Gyre gathers little bits of broken-up plastic, forming a contaminated soup harmful to many marine species.

According to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, plastic pellets have been found in the stomachs of sea turtles, and 63 of the world's 250 species of seabirds, which mistake the plastic bits for food and bring the brightly colored pellets back to the nest. The pellets can clog the animals' digestive systems, eventually killing them. Plastics pack a chemical one-two punch; as they deteriorate, they can release harmful chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA), which studies have linked to developmental problems in children. Plastic also absorbs other harmful chemicals, creating tiny toxic pills in the water.

The debris found in the gyres comes from all corners of the world in all shapes and sizes, from derelict fishing gear and rubber duckies jettisoned from wayward shipping containers, to plastic bags and bottles. Preventing debris from getting into the oceans is one challenge, cleaning it up is another. In some ways, a floating garbage island would be easier to deal with than this plastic soup. Straining the microscopic bits of plastic from the ocean is an impossible task, and while the image of a huge ship, trailing fine nets behind is a dramatic one, it would likely do more harm than good, as it strained the life from the sea. 

— Published: April/May 2012

We Can Make A Difference

Ways we can use plastic more judiciously and better dispose of it:

  • Recycle.
  • Purchase products that use less plastic in packaging. Select glass or paper. Buy in bulk. Look for items that can be reused. Steer clear of disposable items that will end up as trash.
  • Minimize your use of single-use disposable products, particularly plastic bottles and bags. Carry a reusable drinking container, drink tap water, decline straws. Use durable fabric shopping bags instead of plastic bags.
  • Instead of buying sparkling water, club soda, tonic, and colas in individual plastic bottles — and discarding hundreds of plastic bottles a year per household — use a CO2 infuser, such as SodaStream (about $75), which will save money and makes excellent sparkling drinks from clean water.
  • Pick up a piece of plastic on your way home from your boat and toss in a recycling bin.
  • Volunteer with your kids to help clean up your local shoreline.
  • Cut the rings of plastic sixpack holders, which lowers the chances of entanglement with marine animals.
  • By being a BoatUS member, you can support the efforts of the BoatUS Foundation, which is working on initiatives that promote clean water. For instance, over the past five years, the Foundation has built a nationwide fishingline recycling program. In 2011 alone, this program recycled over 2,000 miles of fishing line. For more info, visit


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