Image Source: Flickr. By: Kevin Krejci.

When we think of ocean pollution, our thoughts will most likely turn to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: a rather large collection of plastic, sludge, and other debris floating about the North Pacific Ocean. While the Pacific Garbage Patch is probably the most well-known and most cited, did you know there are actually 5 trash gyres polluting our oceans?

5Gyres.org is educating the public about this very problem and what is being done to clean things up and prevent further pollution. According to their website, the life cycle of trash follows a very specific cycle from us to our waterways and back to us again: Consumption, Pollution, Circulation, Accumulation, Ingestion, and then back to Consumption again. Here’s a brief explanation of each step:

Consumption – Every year, we consume billions of bags, bottles and other forms of packaging and products. Unfortunately, as far as plastic goes, we only recover about 5% of what is produced. Nearly 50% of it still ends up in landfills and the rest of it remains “unaccounted for”, most likely lost to the environment somewhere and eventually it all ends up in the sea.

Pollution – When all that trash ends up in our oceans (whether on purpose or by accident), some of it will continue to float along the surface. The combination of sunlight and water movement breaks down the trash bit by bit. However, the trash never completely disappears—regardless of how small it becomes—and it still poses a major threat to marine life.

Circulation – Eventually, all of this trash is picked up by a slow moving current, known as a gyre. These gyres vary in size and shape, but they generally move the trash in a slow, clockwise spiral path towards the center. With all this trash so packed together, it will take even longer for it to break down. Oh, and in case you’re still wondering, the 5 main gyres are located in the following places: North Atlantic Ocean, North Pacific Ocean, South Atlantic Ocean, South Pacific Ocean, and the Indian Ocean. There are also smaller gyres located near Alaska and Antarctica.

Accumulation – The more trash that ends up in the ocean, the bigger these garbage patches become. On top of that, they attract and collect other waterborne contaminants, such as pesticides and hydrocarbons. These POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) are absorbed and adsorbed by plastic pollution in high concentrations and these pollutants may be transferred to any marine life that consumes them.

Ingestion – Did you know that 44% of all seabird species, 22% of cetaceans, all sea turtle species, and a number of fish have been discovered with plastic in or around their bodies? Now, imagine the effects of that working up the food chain. Some plastics can contain or absorb toxic chemicals. If a fish consumes part of that plastic, those chemicals may end up part of the fish’s body, and if you catch and consume that fish, well, you can guess where it would go from there.

Do you really want to continue that cycle?

I didn’t think so.

To find out more about what’s happening now with the 5 gyres, ongoing research, and solutions to this massive problem; check out this site.

By Heidi Marshall