Saturday, July 24, 2010

New Plastic Gyre Found in Indian Ocean

Plastic debris collected from the ocean's newest floating "garbage patch." (Photo: 5 Gyres Institute)

Scientists previously mapped huge floating trash patches in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, but now a husband-wife team researching plastic garbage in the Indian Ocean suggest a new and dire view. "The world's oceans are covered with a thin plastic soup," says Anna Cummins, cofounder of 5 Gyres Institute.

Cummins and her husband, Marcus Eriksen, established the 5 Gyres Institute to research plastic pollution in the world's oceans. The team works in collaboration with Algalita Marine Research Foundation and Pangaea Explorations, two nonprofit scientific organizations devoted to marine preservation. They report that all of the 12 water samples collected in the 3,000 miles between Perth, Australia, and Port Louis, Mauritius (an island due East of Madagascar), contain plastic.

Map of the five ocean gyres (Image: NOAA)

Their findings support earlier research about trash washed onto beaches in and around the Indian Ocean, and it's already been well established that there's an enormous amount of plastic trash swirling in the North Pacific and North Atlantic Ocean Gyres.

Gyres are powerful rotating currents in the world's major oceans. The five large subtropical gyres are located in the North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian oceans. Once plastic makes its way into the ocean (through sewers, streams, rivers, or from the coast), it is ultimately swept up and trapped in these gyres and forms a swirling soup of garbage.

"There is no island of trash," says Anna Cummins, cofounder of 5 Gyres Institute. "It's a myth." Instead, she says the garbage patches resemble plastic soup or confetti. "We now have a third accumulation zone of plastic pollution that shows compounding evidence that the trash isn't condensed to an island," she says. "It's spread out across the entire gyre from coast to coast."

Ironically, it would be far easier to clean up the oceans if the trash were forming islands, Eriksen explains. In his opinion, it isn't practical to try to recover the plastic from sea because most is fragmented and widely distributed. "If you stand on island beaches and mainland coastlines, you can watch the plastic coming to you. That's where gyre clean up makes the most sense," Eriksen says, "but we need to stop the flow of plastic into the ocean."

The best solution, he says, is to collect debris that washes up on beaches, which act as natural nets, before it washes back into the ocean where it poses significant health risks for fish, seabirds, and other marine animals that mistake small plastic pellets for food or get tangled in discarded fishing nets.

Garbage washed up on island beaches. (Photo: 5 Gyres Institute)

This Indian Ocean garbage patch discovery means there are now three confirmed ocean zones of plastic pollution, and Eriksen and Cummins also expect to find others in the South Pacific and South Atlantic gyres also. The 5 Gyres Institute, a team of scientists and educators, will lead eight expeditions to explore the South Atlantic (starting later this summer) and South Pacific (scheduled for next spring).

More garbage floating in the ocean. (Photo: 5 Gyres Institute)

What can we do help prevent this plastic soup from growing larger? We can look for the new degradable bioplastics to replace conventional petroleum-based plastic. We can choose reusable items over disposables, buy less plastics overall, and help clean up beaches.

Via Yahoo!News

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