A commonly asked question at The Junk Wave workshops: What is a gyre?
A Gyre is a movement of ocean current and wind patterns. In particular geographical places where winds blow consistently in the same direction, permanent currents are created. The combination of the current and wind create a swirling vortex: a pattern of circular movement – a gyre.
There are five major gyres across our oceans:
- North Atlantic Gyre
- South Atlantic Gyre
- Indian Ocean Gyre
- North Pacific Gyre
- South Pacific Gyre
Rubbish and waste that enter our oceans systems may find their way into a gyre and are kept in place, bobbing around and around in that gyre. The swirling whirlpool of a gyre, pushes any foreign bodies caught in it toward the centre where it spins more slowly.
Unable to exit the vortex because it is caught in a whirlpool, OUR waste, stays in the ocean having a nice little cruise around and around a particular gyre system.
Submerged, in cold water and often protected from sunlight because of other rubbish above it, much waste does not readily break down. In fact, plastic NEVER totally breaks down. It eventually breaks into millions of tiny pieces, jelly like in nature.
There are two documented floating rubbish dumps in our oceans: two gyres that have swirled together so much rubbish that the waste covers an area larger than the size of Texas. Much of this waste in the ocean is plastic: bottles, lids, straws, packets….things we throw out without due thought to where they end up.
The chemical compound of plastic is toxic. In the water, it attracts more toxins to itself and becomes more toxic than if on land.
Fish and marine birds, mistake the plastic as food, eat it and die.
Small marine creatures consume these small fragments of chemical-laden plastic, mistaking them for phytoplankton. In a process called bio-accumulation, toxic compounds build up in an organism at a rate faster than they can be broken down, thus impacting the food chain from bottom to top. Ultimately, these harmful substances wind up in the seafood on our dinner plates and we thereby become subject to bio-accumulation ourselves.
Other animals such as sea turtles and birds also consume larger bits of plastic mistaking it for food. These larger fragments cannot pass through an animals’ digestive systems and have no nutritional value. With no room left for their normal food, they slowly starve to death. Albatross unwittingly feed plastic to their young, causing them to die of starvation, too. Once an animal dies and its body decomposes, all that remains is the plastic, which is then released back into the environment where it will continue to cause harm. From, Environmental Cleanup Coalition: What’s the problem.
To learn more about the problem of our floating rubbish dumps and how you can contribute to a solution, visit these sites:
TED: Capt. Charles Moore on the Seas of Plastic (Charles Moore is credited with the discovery of the Pacific Gyre garbage patch in 1997. My favourite quote comes from Capt. Moore: Humanity’s plastic footprint is probably more dangerous than its carbon footprint. Charles Moore, Ocean Researcher.