Ocean gyres to trash vortexes PLASTIC 37 Who’s Minding the Planet? OCEAN & COASTAL No matter your background, the environmentalist in all of us cringes when reading this sentiment from Captain Moore. Say nothing of our inherent instinct to get involved and help in some way. However, in order to fully understand what the Captain described, and to put it into context with our world today, we need to step back a few paces. As he crossed the Pacific Ocean, what Moore discovered in 1997 (and shortly thereafter was named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), exists within the confines of the North Pacific subtropical gyre. There are five major ocean gyres around the globe that have existed and evolved with the shifting of the tectonic plates since the beginning of time. Formed by global wind patterns and the forces created by the Earth’s rotation, ocean gyres have a tendency to collect debris – which up until modern times has consisted of natural material. The North Pacific Ocean Gyre is massive, made up of four currents that move in a clockwise direction around an area of 20 million square kilometers (7.7 million square miles). Similar in nature to the effects of a whirlpool, ocean gyres draw floating or suspended material into the area. Over time, that material breaks down and is naturally constituted into ocean waters, in a continuous cycle of natural decomposition. When we started producing man- made materials around a century ago, like plastic, they also began to enter the ecosystem. Naturally occurring debris is virtually harmless, as it eventually breaks down and continues the decomposition and enrichment cycle. But man-made debris isn’t so harmless. Some of these materials can take hundreds of years to decompose, polluting our oceans and taking a toll on the Earth and those that inhabit it. Today, ocean gyres or vortexes collect storm debris, the same way they have for years. But the majority of this material is plastic. Man-made materials were essentially born out of the industrial revolution, a period when terrific advancements were made in manufacturing and production, including those in chemical processes. Out of that upsurge in technology, plastic was invented. According to some scientists, all the plastic that has ever been produced still exists today. It may be buried in a landfill, recycled and reconstituted into a park bench, or has sunk to the bottom of the ocean, but it’s still on Earth. Plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose. In the meantime, it doesn’t break down – it simply breaks apart into smaller and smaller pieces. It’s estimated that 705,000 tons of plastic makes up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. When we ponder for a moment what a “garbage patch” in the middle of the ocean might look like, many of us can imagine a suspended island of trash floating on the water. And certainly, much of the garbage is in fact larger pieces of storm debris, such as fishing nets, buoys, or marina docks and broken up boats. But in reality, ocean garbage patches are predominantly made up of miniscule bits of plastic, called microplastics, in suspension up and down the water column. These micro-plastics are produced from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic and are also found in some personal care products, such as toothpaste and face wash. Much of the garbage patch debris isn’t visible to the naked eye, and large percentages of it are deep below the surface of the water. …In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments… Capt. Charles Moore, discoverer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch