The Journey of Forgotten Plastics Through Our Ocean Currents
By Meghan Hall
It’s trash day in a small suburb. A garbage truck slowly makes its way up and down the intersecting streets, stopping to collect bags from each can.
On the way to the dump, a small candy wrapper flutters out the back of the truck. There must have been a ripped bag.
The wrapper floats on the wind and settles into the drainage ditch on the side of the road. After a heavy rain, it finds its way into a nearby river and drifts its way out to the ocean.
Typically, this is where the story ends. Trash meets the ocean. The end. But so much more happens after. That little wrapper has only scratched the surface of its long odyssey.
At the mouth of the river, wind and tidal currents push the candy wrapper past the waves along the shore. Ocean currents carry it farther and farther from land. Eventually, the wrapper is so far out that there’s no land in sight.
Days and weeks pass as it floats along, carried by the currents. More discarded waste starts collecting around that little wrapper — a garbage patch, trapped in the place where currents meet.
A year has gone by and the little candy wrapper from suburbia has made a long journey across the vast ocean. It starts to sink, slowly. Finally, it comes to rest on the ocean floor.
Journey to the Ends of the Earth
Trash has polluted even the farthest reaches of the Earth, from the icy shores of Antarctica to the depths of the Mariana Trench. It turns out, our trash can travel insane distances over its lifetime — and since plastic never really fully degrades, that’s quite a lot of travel time.
From land to the deep ocean floor, there are a lot of processes involved in this journey. Primarily, trash reaches the ocean through stormwater carrying off litter., But ocean currents are the main force that carries waste across the world.
Motion of the Ocean
The ocean isn’t a giant, peaceful lake. On the surface and in the depths below, the water is constantly on the move. We call these movements currents.
Currents are created by a number of different factors. The currents we experience first-hand are tidal currents, created by the ebb and flow of the tides at the beach.
Wind is another big player in making the ocean move. It’s responsible for creating surface currents.
The last way currents are made has to do with the physical properties of water. Cold water is much denser than hot water, causing it to sink and slide under the warmer surface water. Additionally, seawater with a higher salt concentration is denser than less salty water and the result is a similar sinking effect. These currents are the slowest.
Gyres Are Natural Trash Traps
There are 5 major areas in the ocean where different currents meet, called gyres. These gyres are home to large garbage patches. The swirling waters of the currents trap debris of various shapes and sizes.
Unlike the famous trash islands, garbage patches are spread out over a large area rather than in one clump. These patches also extend vertically from the surface down to the ocean floor.7
The largest of these gyres is in the North Pacific Ocean. It’s also home to the largest garbage patch, and the world’s highest concentration of microplastics., Mostly supplied by the densely populated countries of East Asia. Debris spends an average of 3 years trapped in the North Pacific gyre!
Everything Is Connected
If ocean currents can carry trash all the way to the bottom of the Mariana Trench or Antarctica, then it can carry debris to almost anywhere.
On a global scale, scientists refer to the circular movement of currents as the “global conveyor belt”.
This circle starts in the cold waters of the Norwegian Sea. The Gulf Stream brings warm water from the Equator north where it cools and sinks to the ocean floor. Then, this cold water travels all the way down to Antarctica and back again.
These major ocean currents connect the entire globe.
Marine Protected Areas Under Threat
Marine protected areas ─ MPAs for short ─ are areas that are under conservation protection by a government. These MPAs are supposedly pristine and, for the most part, kept safe from man’s influence.
However, the sea doesn’t follow our man-made laws. Ocean currents have been dragging garbage from across the world and depositing it even in MPAs and distant, hard to reach places. A place’s “connectivity footprint” refers to the level of connection it shares with other areas of the one world ocean.
Some islands near the UK have a worryingly high connectivity footprint, which doesn’t bode well for other protected areas. These islands are supposed to be protected, but the ocean currents have something else to say about that.
A Mounting Problem
Water from the coast of Brazil can reach the UK in about a year. It takes as little as four months for trash to make its way across the entire Sea of Japan. Several thousand tons of plastic floats on the surface of the world’s oceans, carried by the currents. Not to mention the thousands of tons that have come to rest on the seafloor.
Plastic causes enough problems when it’s intact, but it never fully breaks down. It hangs around as microplastics, some too small for the eye to see. These microplastics present a serious threat to not only the planet’s health, but to our health as well.
Microplastics creep into our water, soil and food. Studies have found alarming amounts of dangerous chemicals from microplastics in our seafood.
It’s not just our food that’s contaminated. Humans aren’t the only animals that need to eat. Sometimes marine animals, like sea birds, mistake plastics for a delicious meal. Filter feeders, like mussels, can’t avoid ingesting microplastics.
As ocean currents carry our trash farther and farther, the harmful effects of plastic pollution only grow larger. Nowhere is safe.
How You Can Slow The Spread
Join a cleanup!
We can directly reduce the amount of waste that reaches the ocean by attacking the problem at the source. Ocean Blue Project has helped organize beach cleanups that have removed more than 180,000 pounds of litter! Find a project near you, or start your own, to get started in the fight against pollution.
Check your plastic privilege.
Our modern consumer lives revolve around plastic. You can make a difference by checking out your plastic footprint and making some adjustments. Use less single-use plastics. It’s as simple as refusing to use plastic straws and plasticware when you order take out. Or invest in some cloth shopping bags and ditch the plastic! And, as always, reduce, reuse, recycle.
Spread the word!
Knowledge is power. You can help Ocean Blue Project spread awareness. Educate your friends, family, and community about proper waste management. You can start out by telling them 7 ways to protect the ocean. Subscribe to our blog using your RSS feed. Then you’ll be the first to know when a new post is made.
Author Bio: Meghan Hall is a freelance copywriter who loves the outdoors. She is passionate about preserving the environment and spreading awareness.