Is there a plastic island in the ocean?

You may have herd about a garbage island in the middle of the ocean. This is one of the most recent ocean myths out there. “The discovery for me was not so much “Well, I’m in a garbage patch.” It wasn’t like an island of trash like people keep wanting to say. It’s just that I couldn’t survey the surface of the ocean for any period of time while standing on deck without seeing some anthropogenic debris, something that was human in origin, float by. Not necessarily a large something, but just something.” – Captain Charles Moore.

This phenomenon, wrongly called a garbage “island” or “patch”, regards the vast accumulation of man-made debris that are floating in the middle of the North Pacific, between the east coast of the US and Japan. It was first discovered by accident in 1972 by two scientists. They documented their finding, but didn’t regard it as important. It was not until 1999 (27 years later) that captain Charles Moore officially discovered it. He understood its importance and began to raise international awareness of the problem. Since then, many research teams have scoured the oceans in search of garbage debris to better understand the accumulation of plastics in the oceans.

charles moore
Captain Charles Moore. Algalita Marine Research Foundation

However, this accumulation of garbage caught in the Pacific Ocean is not the only one, in fact, there are four other regions. These areas are called ocean gyres, or simply gyres. Now, a gyre is a great system of ocean currents which rotate clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counterclockwise to clockwise in the south. These rotating currents carry drifting debris towards the centre of each gyre and traps them there.

Here you can see a video simulation created by the NASA Scientific Visualization Team to show how garbage accumulates in the oceans around the world.

The five major gyres which are spread across the world’s oceans are named the North Atlantic gyre, the South Atlantic gyre, the North Pacific gyre, the South Pacific gyre and the Indian Ocean gyre. These gyres do not only collect marine debris, in fact many pelagic organisms that are suspended in water, such as plankton or algae, are also swept up by these circular currents.

It is from the enormity of these garbage gyres that the myth of the garbage island arose. And you can see why: the North Pacific gyre is estimated to be twice the size of Texas! But the reality is there is no garbage island in the middle of the ocean, but there is A LOT of garbage, floating around wreaking havoc on marine life.

So there is no such island and in fact the term “plastic island” or “garbage island” was invented by the media, showing pictures like the following one.

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Volunteers cleaning a reservoir full of plastic and other trash in Bulgaria (AFP/ Dimitar Dilkoff)

It´s important to note that this picture does not depict the Pacific Ocean, and is in fact a reservoir inland.

So this plastic island is a myth

What we should be concentrating on is that there are areas in the ocean the size of countries that are made up of rubbish. What´s more is that there isn´t only one or two; but five of these areas. (They are called gyres).

 


Find more information online:

The 5 Gyres Institute 

List with online information

Audiovisual resources

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