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Ocean plastic pollution and how you can help

Feature story - 30 October, 2006
Sometimes referred to as the North Pacific garbage patch, this vortex is the epicenter of a system currents and winds covering most of the North Pacific. It has become home to a familiar substance – plastic.

Every year, about 300 billion pounds of plastic is produced around the world, and only a fraction is recycled. Where does the rest end up? Well, the majority ends up in landfills, but some finds its way into our oceans. Plastic is valued for its resistance to degradation, so its life span can be hundreds of years. When plastic reaches our oceans, it eventually breaks down due to the action of the sun, wind, and currents, into small, literally bite sized pieces that wildlife confuse with food. It's an easy mistake to make.

Toothbrushes found during a beach clean up.  

Trash vortex explained

The trash vortex is one of the most studied areas of plastic accumulation in our oceans. At its maximum the area can reach the size of Texas. It is made up of everything from tiny pieces of plastic debris to large ghost nets lost by the fishing industry.

As trash swirls through the world's oceans to a handful of vortexes like this, it leaves a trail of death and destruction along its path. Plastic is often mistaken for food and has been found inside marine life of all sizes, from whales to zooplankton. It has been directly blamed  for the death of a wide range of animals including albatrosses and sea turtles.  While massive trash like ghost nets can ensnare and trap thousands of creatures, there are concerns that even the smallest pieces of plastic may pose a problem , as plastic often accumulates in the digestive tract, many animals essentially choke on plastic intake. Others starve to death from a lack of nutrition despite a full stomach (such as Laysen Albatross chicks).

Where does it all come from?

Only a small percentage of the trash found at sea is thought to originate there. So how does the rest of it make it out to sea? It comes from a variety of sources, from the litter you see on the streets to industrial waste. Every time it rains, pollution of all kinds washes from land into storm drains and rivers, eventually reaching the ocean. Once there, the long-lasting qualities of plastic mean that it remains in the ecosystem for decades (and potentially longer), and as more trash accumulates, our oceans and the inhabitants within them are facing a crisis.

During the year long Defending Our Oceans expedition, scientists and crew onboard the Esperanza have been sampling the world's oceans to determine the impact and pervasiveness of plastic in the ocean environment. During this leg of the expedition, we will journey into the heart of the vortex, to assess...

What YOU Can Do

We're all responsible for this mess, and it will take all of us to stop it from getting worse. It's time to completely rethink how we as a society use (or abuse) plastic. Here are some things that you can do right now:

  • Every time you see litter, pick it up and dispose of it properly.
  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — you've heard it before, but now you know what happens when you don't. Be conscious of all that you buy, and be sure to avoid products with excessive packaging, especially in disposable products.
  • Demand more and better recycling facilities in your area.
  • Take part in local stream, river and beach cleanups - or organize one yourself. Though these don't solve the problem, they are very effective at drawing attention to the greater problem offshore.
  • If you live near the ocean, or a river that drains into it, your storm drains are probably washing garbage right out to sea. Be conscious of potential sources of marine litter in your area. Demand that these are eliminated.
  • Be very conscious of your ecological footprint. Encourage change though your decisions and do no accept the current paradigm of use and waste.