17 March 2011

5 Gyres to explore plastic pollution in yet another oceanic gyre: the South Pacific

Two Oceans Aquarium

Researchers conclude most extensive study of ocean plastic pollution ever undertaken: Goal of voyage through fifth of five gyres is to bring attention to a global problem


Capping the most extensive study of ocean plastic pollution ever undertaken, pioneering researchers with the 5 Gyres Institute will launch a voyage on 19 March through the fifth of five global subtropical gyres, the massive swirling areas of the ocean where plastic debris accumulates.

The crew, lead by Dr Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, will sail over 2 000 miles from Valdivia, Chile, zigzagging through the South Pacific gyre, to arrive at Easter Island on 7 April.

Little data on plastic in this region exists, but the researchers expect to find the same kind of plastic pollution – known to harm marine life, fisheries, and to possibly threaten human health – that they have found in every single sample they’ve taken from sailing through 20 000 gyres in the North Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

No other such researchers have sailed through all of the world’s five subtropical gyres. 5 Gyres’s goal is to document the problem, bring it to world attention and foster solutions.

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

Most ocean plastic pollution takes the form of tiny plastic bits resulting from degraded fishing gear or from plastic waste flowing out to sea from land. Sea turtles, marine mammals, birds and fish ingest these plastic particles, causing internal blockages and an increased accumulation of synthetic chemicals in their bodies. The debris can also kill seabirds and marine mammals that die of starvation, their bellies full of plastic mistaken for food.

5 Gyres is also studying whether humans are being harmed by eating fish that have ingested debris contaminated with PCBs, DDT, and other toxins. The non-profit organisation is collaborating with Algalita Marine Research Foundation and Pangaea Explorations, and working with the United Nations’ Safe Planet campaign. 

While the marine debris problem is typically described as a well defined “garbage patch”, plastic pollution at sea takes the form of a thin, diffuse soup. 

Either way, it cannot be cleaned up by any practical means, so society must stop the problem at its source, the researchers stress. They advocate improving the recyclability of plastics, legislation requiring companies to take responsibility for recovery and reuse of their products, and curbs on single-use disposable products. 

About the 5 Gyres Institute: 5 Gyres Institute is a nonprofit organization committed to meaningful change through research and education. 5 Gyres disseminates its findings through lectures and travelling exhibits, and raises awareness of ocean plastic pollution through expeditions, including that aboard JUNKraft, the boat built in 2008 of 15 000 plastic bottles. It collaborates with Algalita Marine Research Foundation and Pangaea Explorations, which provide it with a marine laboratory and research vessel, respectively. After studying the five subtropical gyres, 5 Gyres will monitor these vortexes through continued expeditions, and the Travelling Trawl Program voyages, which loan research equipment to volunteer “citizen scientists”.

Stiv J Wilson

5 Gyres Institute Communications Director


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