Everyone knows the story; a containership loses a few boxes in a storm, and soon 28,000 rubber duckies are floating in the gyre, showing up all over the world, with scientists tracing their path. A schoolteacher in Alaska wrote about it in the SItka Sentinel and it went viral in the nineties newsprint fashion, showing up in the Guardian, the New York Times and on TV and then "swirling around the maelstrom of the Internet." Except they weren't ducks. They became the nautical equivalent of an urban myth- "the metamorphosis of happenstance into narrative and narrative into myth" So starts an article in the January Harper's magazine by Donovan Hohn, Moby Duck, or, the synthetic Wilderness of Childhood" It is a long article, 22 pages without an ad, and it meanders at times, but what a story. In fact the container was filled with plastic bath toys,(turtles, beavers, frogs, and a yellow duck) for dwellers in the Plastic Age, defined in 1941: "The Plastic man will come into a world of colour and bright shining surfaces, where childish hands find nothing to break, no sharp edges or corners to cut or graze, no crevices to harbour dirt or germs, because, being a child, his parents will see to it hat he is surrounded on every side by this tough, clean, material which human thought has created, ....his toys, his cot,...the teething ring he bites, the unbreakable bottle he feeds from, ...all will be plastic."
The article goes on to look at the history of the rubber duckie. It appears that there was a diverse ecology of plastic bath toys from the post-war years, all designed to keep us from playing with ourselves. "the baby will not spend much time handling his genitals if he has other interesting things to do". This all became a monoculture of yellow rubber duckies just about instantly in 1970, when Ernie first sang the rubber duckie song on Sesame Street.
The article does tell of the lessons learned over the years as the bathtoys found their way around the world from the middle of the Pacific as far away as Maine; they are wandering still. We also learn about what happens to other, less durable plastics that collect in the gyres or end up as coloured sand on the beach.
visit Greenpeace's moving gyre from the Moving of Trash