Traversing The South Pacific Gyre: Plastic Marine Pollution Is Officially A Global Issue


Close-up on a sample from the South Pacific gyre. Photo credit: Paula Alvarado
Welcome To The South Pacific Garbage Patch: Not A Theatrical Spectacle But A Serious Issue
On our eleventh day on board of the Sea Dragon with the 5 Gyres Institute to study plastic pollution in the South Pacific, we finally began traversing the gyre, where garbage floating to this part of the ocean accumulates. On the surface, the water looks the same way it looked for the past hundreds of miles, but it's the samples from the water that show a different reality.


Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen discussing results from a trawl. Photo credit: Paula Alvarado
It's Official: There's Plastic in All of the Subtropical Ocean Gyres
Mixed with the ocean microorganisms, an increasing number of plastic particles continues to appear and to confirm that this material is present in the five subtropical gyres explored by the 5 Gyres project.

At the risk of been taken out of context by plastic industry opportunists, let's just say it: there is no plastic island, or big pile of trash floating in the middle of the ocean. As 5 Gyres founders put it in our video interview a few days ago, it's more accurate to talk about a plastic soup: small particles that are floating in the water not visible to the eye unless you take the trawl samples this expedition has been taking.

Despite the lack of a theatrical spectacle, it's still a surreal thing to see some of the results of the sampling. Take the one from last night's high speed trawl: fishing nets, pellets (unprocessed plastic probably out from a container transporting the raw material), plastic film, particles of different colors and types. Hundreds of miles away from any coast.

There's some comfort in one thing: the South Pacific seems to have less concentration of plastics than the previous gyres, at least observationally. Considering that this part of the ocean is surrounded by less developed nations (Chile, Peru, Ecuador, small islands), this could mean that land outputs determine the levels of pollution in our oceans and thus that we could address the issue by preventing our stuff from reaching the water.

It could also mean that there's something to learn about less developed countries in South America and our way of life. As an Argentinean, I've often found myself puzzled by the amount of disposable materials that are consumed in the northern hemisphere when visiting the US. To be economical about everything, including packaging and waste, is something we've learned the hard way through frequent economic crashes and strains: seeing the potential use of discarded materials, not letting go of things so easily. It's also in our nature to buy and consume more fresh products and less processed foods. These simple cultural habits are perhaps some keys to why the South Pacific is different.

"We've had the chance to cross the other four of the subtropical gyres and what we thought in coming into this voyage was that we would either see more trash -given the fact that the South Pacific has the tightest accumulation zone- or that we'd see less -given the fact that you have less inputs-, " says Anna Cummins, co founder of the 5 Gyres Institute. "What we have seen is that in fact there seems to be less plastic in this gyre compared to the others. Still, to find particles several thousand miles from land here means that no matter where you go in the world, every single ocean has evidence of our consumer habits in land."


A plastic pellet: a form in which this material is found unprocessed, probably out from a container. Photo credit: Paula Alvarado

Indeed, after exploring the North Pacific, North Atlantic, Indian Ocean and South Atlantic gyres, the 5 Gyres project has confirmed that marine plastic pollution goes well beyond the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. "Plastic pollution in the oceans is an international issue: all countries are responsible to a degree and all countries should take responsibility for solving the problem," says Cummins.

Apart from continuing the trawling and observation activities in the gyre in the following week of the trip, the researchers are looking forward to see the coasts of Easter Island to find out more about what's the level of plastic pollution in this region of the world. As islands act like natural 'nets' for trash floating in the ocean, the sandy beaches should unveil more about the South Pacific gyre.

Meanwhile, in the coming days we'll be discussing possible ways to approach this issue within the international community, what's the further research needed to find out the real impact of this material in the ocean, and what are the future plans for 5 Gyres. Stay tuned!

More from TreeHugger's voyage with 5 Gyres
5 Gyres Partnerships Fostering Pioneering Studies On Plastics And Phytoplankton
Ocean Plastics In Our Food Chain: The Importance Of Lantern Fish And Night Trawling
First Evidence of Plastic in the South Pacific: Is This a Different Kind of Garbage Patch?
Aboard with 5 Gyres in the South Pacific: The Trawling Begins
5 Gyres Founders Explain How Plastic Pollution in Oceans Really Works (Video)