As the ocean currents circulate water around the planet they form what are known as Gyres.
There are five main Gyres in our global ocean system.
The Indian Ocean Gyre, North Atlantic Gyre, North Pacific Gyre, South Atlantic Gyre, and the South Pacific Gyre.
It is not only water that is transported around our planet through these ocean current systems. Currents also transport plankton, fish, heat, momentum, chemicals such as salts, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and trash.
Rubbish that falls from ships, that is carried down storm water, or is blown by wind, ends up in our ocean, and is transported through ocean currents. Transported where? When we see cast away objects floating down the side of the street with rainwater, or blowing across our path with the wind, where will it end up?
Perhaps one of the best documented Gyre is the North Pacific Gyre, or better known as The Garbage Patch, an area twice the size of the state of Texas is a floating mass of our rubbish, made up mainly of plastics.
As we know plastic never breaks down completely. Even after breaking down to the smallest particles, it is still plastic. In the ocean these very small plastic particles are eaten by sea life at the bottom of the food chain, such as Sandhoppers. These creatures are eaten by larger ones, and so on until finally we are eating the plastics in our food. It is important to keep in mind also that plastics are a petroleum based product; we will come back to this.
First let’s look at some other products found in our ocean.
Pesticide contaminates land and water when it escapes from production sites and storage tanks, when it runs off from fields, when it is discarded, when it is sprayed aerially, and when it is sprayed into water to kill algae. Fertilizer run off from farms and lawns is a huge problem for coastal areas. The extra nutrients cause eutrophication – flourishing of algal blooms that deplete the water’s dissolved oxygen and suffocate other marine life. Eutrophication has created enormous dead zones in several parts of the world, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea. Oil spills cause huge damage to the marine environment – but in fact are responsible for only around 12% of the oil entering the seas each year. According to a study by the US National Research Council, 36% comes down drains and rivers as waste and run off from cities and industry.
Among the many chemical and biological toxins found floating in the ocean, scientists have identified a number of particularly harmful compounds called “persistent organic pollutants” or POPs, and exposure to them can cause death and illnesses including disruption of the endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems. After a heavy rain, coastal rivers and streams carry many different pollutants to the sea. As rainwater washes into gutters and storm drains, it carries with it all that we humans have carelessly left behind.
Now remember all that pesky plastic in the ocean.
Most plastics in use today, excluding the few plant-based alternatives slowly reaching the market, are made of petroleum, and as a result they float like oil on or near the surface of the ocean. When exposed to sunlight over prolonged periods of time, these plastics break up into smaller and smaller particles until all that remains is a fine plastic dust. Unfortunately, this seemingly harmless plastic dust retains all its chemical components and will never biodegrade. In fact, unless it was incinerated, all of the plastic ever made remains in the environment to this day.
Researchers are now learning that floating plastic particles attract POPs from surrounding sea water like a magnet, and as these plastic particles make their way through the oceanic currents, they accumulate and transport them around the globe. Many of these pollutants are known carcinogens and are potentially harmful to animals when ingested. Studies have also shown that these plastic particles contain POP levels up to a million times higher than in surrounding sea water.
As plastic builds up in the food chain carrying with it increasing amounts of toxins, there is the potential that it could reach food organisms that are harvested by humans. We are the apex predator of the sea and when we consume fish and seafood, we consume everything that they have consumed. There is growing evidence that some of the toxins associated with plastic particles in the gyre are responsible for an increase in health problems in humans such as endocrine cancers and brain damage, as well as reproductive and cardiovascular damage.
It stands to reason that if plastics are found in the North Pacific Gyre in all probability they are present in every Gyre around our planet. Scientists recently announced the existence of a garbage patch in the Indian Ocean, and there is another in the North Atlantic Ocean.
As a society we produce and consume at an obscene rate, and very little thought if any at all is given to how and where these products are made. What social value do many of these products have? Sadly most of what we consume has zero social value, it is simply materialistic garbage we do not need at all, and by default will end up being thrown away almost immediately.