Monday, August 4, 2008

JUNK in the GYRE: the toilet bowl that never flushes

August 3rd

We’re in the Gyre, or at least the southeastern edge of it. And there’s trash. We’ve got our marine debris trawl deployed to collect it. Remember, the North Pacific Gyre is a clockwise rotating mass of water roughly twice the size of the U.S. where currents and winds slow down. It’s like a toilet bowl that never flushes. JUNK is currently floating at 24N latitude and 139W longitude.

Take a look at the 20-year study done by Jim Ingraham tracking a couple dozen buoys around the Pacific Ocean.

In the photo, the red dots are buoys released from Japan, and the blue squares are buoys released from North America. They floated in circles around the Pacific Ocean for two decades until settling in the middle of the gyre (and are probably still there.) But plastic debris is not confined to these zones.

In February 2008, Joel, Anna and I were half the crew aboard the ORV Alguita with Captain Charles Moore traveling 4000 miles from Hawaii to the center of the Pacific Ocean and returning to Long Beach California. We discovered that plastic debris exists everywhere in the North Pacific Gyre. In 1999 Captain Moore first discovered the oceanic landfill, or “seafill” with a concentration of .002grams per square meter. Then in 2005 the density jumped to .004, doubling in only 6 years. Now in 2008 we have yet to process the latest samples, but we can confidently say it’s gotten worse.

Even the American Chemistry Council, a trade organization representing the major U.S. plastic industries, conducted their own study of plastic marine debris. They replicated our study, but chose a location in the Pacific Ocean where you wouldn’t expect to find any plastic at all, the Bering on for more details:

The Bering Sea sits under a low-pressure system that kicks debris out, whereas the North Pacific Gyre is a constant high-pressure system sucking debris in. The Bering Sea is also adjacent to a sparsely populated coastline. You wouldn’t expect to find plastic there at all. Yet, there it was. The ACC confirmed that wherever you go in the Pacific Ocean you are bound to find plastic. It’s everywhere.

JUNK is skirting the edge of the gyre, riding the rim of the toilet bowl. We are using a marine debris trawl with a one-millimeter mesh, and an opening the size of a shoebox. It skims the surface for floating trash. We kept it out all night to see what we would find. Earlier in the day I spotted a few bits of trash: 1inch diameter plastic washer, short length of rope, and a tangled mass of green fishing line or frayed rope as big as my fist. We deployed the marine debris trawl and in the morning were not surprised by what we found.

At night zooplankton migrate from the depths to the surface to feed. It’s the largest migration of wildlife in the world, and it happens every day. Tiny jellies, salps and myctophid fish with light-emitting photophores on their stomachs give off green flashes of light as JUNK sails through the darkness. These creatures swim to the surface to feed, unfortunately on a diet that includes more and more plastic particles. Our trawl captured dozens of visible white, blue, green, grey and black fragments of plastic.

There was a piece of a plastic bag, a possible milk crate, fishing line, a pre-production plastic pellet, and a flexible, green, triangular fragment perhaps once a piece of a flip-flop. Interestingly, the red, orange and tan pieces are gone. Once again, everywhere you go in the Pacific Ocean there is plastic trash.

Today we will deploy our marine debris trawl again. We will likely sample every day until we arrive in Honolulu, which should be in about 4 weeks.


Unknown said...

Joel and Marcus, Your Feb. work in the Pacific gyre and your trip back across the Pacific this summer have motivated me to do something about the issue of disposable plastic in my own life. I would like to know what other readers are doing in their lives. I decided to start a blog about getting rid of single-use plastic in my life. I also am much more active with environmental work in my community. Check out my blog at and comment on the Junk blog about what you are doing, readers.

Joel's Mom

Maki said...

I'm totally hooked on your journey and want to know the progress everyday which often times depressing reports from the oceans. I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if I were to be the caused of those plastic debris floating in and under the ocean. What can we do to stop this???

Maki said...

I'm totally hooked on your journey and want to know the progress everyday which often times depressing reports from the oceans. I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if I were to be the caused of those plastic debris floating in and under the ocean. What can we do to stop this???

Anonymous said...

thanks to much


Anonymous said...

Hi Guys!
Wow, I found your blog and have to give you kudos for what you are doing. I already try to use as little plastic as possible, and I am going to make the move to using almost none. Even more, I will encourage EVERYONE I know to change their plastic ways.
Great blog, keep it up.

The Mad Dog said...

A few kind words...

"May the Lord fill our sails with fair wind, support our hulls in inviting seas, guide our hands upon the tiller toward pleasant places and bring us home, O Lord, to a safe and loving harbor."

-Peace and joy...The Mad Celt

Frances Leigh said...

Wow, what you are doing is so amazing!

Anonymous said...

I think I found a reference to Jim Ingraham's study.

Rick Hart said...

Hey Guys,
Congrats on making it half way. We are all with you and wish you the best.

It's an amazing journey - so many people are starting to sit up and take notice of just how much plastic we handle every day.

All My Best,
Rick Hart

Unknown said...

I have based my Junior year of high school Science/ Engineering Project off of the Gyre and the problems that the collected plastic debris cause. Hopefully with my research it will bring more awareness aroung my school and community to what we are doing to our earth and oceans.