What's the mission of the 5 Gyres Institute?
Our mission is to empower action against the global health crisis of plastic pollution through science, education, and adventure. Our vision is a world free of plastic pollution! We're honored to be members of Break Free From Plastic, an international movement that unites non-profit organizations to fight plastic pollution, sharing the common values of environmental protection and social justice. We are also founding members of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global alliance of organizations, businesses, and thought leaders working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals, and the environment. In 2017 we received special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
What is a gyre?
A gyre is a large-scale system of wind-driven surface currents in the ocean. The gyres referred to in the name of our organization are the five main subtropical gyres—located in the North and South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean—which are massive, circular current systems.
Why is there plastic in the gyres?
The accumulation zones of plastic that form in the five subtropical gyres are a result of the diminished winds and currents occurring at latitudes synonymous with continental deserts. Basically, plastic is trapped within these currents, taking at least 10 years to cycle back out—if it doesn’t first get eaten by marine life or sink to the bottom.
I use plastic. I recycle. What's the problem?
Plastic was first introduced in the 1950s as a miraculous substance that was cheap, lightweight and could be thrown away after use. But we quickly realized that there is no “away.” Most plastic never really biodegrades—it remains in our environment for hundreds of years. In fact, most of the plastic that we first started using in the last century is still in our environment today. Even if you diligently place your plastic in a recycling bin, it’s probably not getting turned into another product. Remember, most plastics are made from fossil fuels. With energy prices markets low and without a profitable market in which to sell recycled plastic, it’s not cost-effective for recycling companies in developed countries to process it—so many sell it to developing nations where the same recycling capabilities don’t exist. Read on for more on that.
I don't live near the ocean. Why should I worry about plastic there?
A 2017 study from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature found that 95% of plastic in the ocean comes from land: Plastic flows in rivers from land to sea, in the runoff from highly populated coastal cities, and from maritime activities such as fishing and shipping. Even if you live in a landlocked area, your plastic consumption is likely a contributor to the problem.
I don't see plastic in the ocean. How do you know it's there?
In 1972, Ed Carpenter was the first to report plastic pollution in the North Atlantic. Explorations in the South Atlantic near Cape Town, South Africa, in 1980 discovered pre-production plastic pellets and balls of tar known as "plasto-tarballs," reportedly from the flushing of oil tankers into the sea. In 2001, Charles Moore published the first record of what later became known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which the media reported as “the size of Texas.” 5 Gyres began studying the problem in 2008, and in 2009 completed our first Expedition—a 2,600-mile, 88-day journey from California to Hawaii through the North Pacific Gyre on the Junk Raft, a vessel build from 15,000 plastic water bottles. Since then, we’ve completed 17 Expeditions to study plastic pollution in the ocean.
Is there really a “Texas-sized island” of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?
No, the plastic island in the North Pacific Gyre doesn’t actually exist. We’ve now been there five times! This myth actually perpetuates the plastic pollution problem, positioning it as something that we can sweep up and “away,” while continuing to use plastic without consequence. There are concentrations of plastic in the gyres, but the material is constantly in the process of breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, which permeate all waters. In the ocean, plastic is less like an island, and more like smog.
I read that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Is this true?
Yes—if calculated by weight. This media-friendly statistic emerged in a 2016 report on the “circular economy,” a concept embraced by 5 Gyres in which plastic products are better designed to never become waste, but to be perpetually used or recycled.
The New Plastics Economy report also projected that by 2050 the plastics industry will consume 20% of oil production. The point is to highlight the fact that because most plastic is used only once, 95% of its economic value—worth up to $120 billion annually—is lost.
How much plastic is in our ocean?
In 2012, 5 Gyres gathered a group of scientists to establish the world’s first Global Estimate of Marine Plastic Pollution, which we published in 2014. Together, we determined that there were 269,000 metric tons and 5.25 trillion particles on the ocean’s surface. The 2017 United Nations Clean Seas Campaign estimated that there are 51 trillion microplastic particles in the ocean today—500 times more than the number of stars in our galaxy.
I keep hearing about "plastic smog." What does that mean?
In the ocean, ultraviolet light makes plastic brittle and wave action crushes it, breaking it down into microplastics—pieces smaller than a grain of rice. If not consumed by marine life, these fragments slowly settle to the sea floor. After completing the first Global Estimate, we at 5 Gyres began to refer to these particles as “plastic smog.” Exploring this concept, the “Smog of the Sea” documentary about our 2014 Expedition—produced by Jack Johnson, who joined us on the voyage—premiered in 2016.
I thought it only took 20 years for a plastic bag to break down. That doesn't seem very long!
Statistics on how long plastic takes to break down have never been verified. Degredation rates for plastics are environmentally dependent: A plastic bag stuck in a tree will shred in a month or two, but buried in mud it will last far longer. The bottom line? Plastic never breaks down—but depending on environmental conditions it will break up at different rates into microplastics.
I’ve read about plastic-eating microbes—can't they stop it?
Some studies have indicated that plastics may be degraded by microbes. But it’s important to note that these studies were done in labs where conditions don’t replicate real life. Today, the impact of tiny microbes on the massive problem of plastic pollution is negligible.
Or a giant filtration system—wouldn't that fix the problem?
Proposals for filtration systems typically do not reflect an adequate understanding of ocean dynamics and marine ecology, nor are these projects engineered for the harsh conditions in the vast expanse of the world’s oceans. Removal of floating plastic debris from the open ocean can cause substantial impacts on marine ecosystems. You can't simply “scoop out the plastic” without repercussions on the animals and organisms now living with it. This idea also perpetuates the myth of “away,” and subverts the message that we need to stop using so much plastic.
What about "waste to energy" projects—can't we just burn our plastic trash?
For decades, the plastics and chemical industries have proposed gasification as a solution to the problem of marine plastic pollution. Classified as incineration by the EPA and the European Union, gasification—also known as pyrolysis—is the process of subjecting waste to high heat while depriving it of oxygen. Recommendations in these reports include using financial incentives (created for clean technologies such as solar and wind) to encourage the burning of plastic waste.
Along with organizations such as the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) Philippines and Greenpeace Southeast Asia, we oppose these “waste to energy technologies” because they release large amounts of carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming, along with toxic chemicals that pollute the environment. They also undermine waste reduction and recycling programs, and encourage the continued production of cheap plastic goods.
We are challenged by the positioning of goals such as "100% of plastics recycled or recoverable by 2030" (American Chemistry Council, 2018) when waste-to-energy technologies are considered "recovery" strategies.
I only use compostable plastic. That's okay, right?
The good news about compostable plastic is it is typically made from plants rather than petroleum. The bad news is you need a large industrial composting facility to create the ideal conditions in which to break down these types of plastics. In fact, some recycling facilities consider PLA (made from corn) a contaminant. Shifting to “better” plastic is less of a solution than shifting away from all plastic altogether. Consider using reusable products like those we provide in our Plastic Free Shopping Guide.
I care about animals, why should I care about plastic?
Plastic pollution is an animal rights issue. It endangers more than 1,200 species from ingestion or entanglement. From seals with their necks slashed by fishing line, to turtles with straws stuck in their noses, to seabirds who starve to death with their bellies full of plastic, we’ve seen the danger that plastic pollution poses for animals in the marine environment.
I'm already worried about my family's health—why should I care about plastic?
Marine plastic pollution is a human health issue. In the ocean, plastic absorbs toxic chemicals like PCBs and DDTs—chemicals linked to endocrine disruption and even cancer. A tiny piece of microplastic can be one million times more toxic than the ocean water around it; as it degrades, these plastic pieces also release toxic chemicals. And these toxic plastics can work their way up the food chain and onto our plates: We caught a fish in the middle of the North Pacific Gyre and found 16 pieces of plastic in its belly.
I'm concerned about social justice. Why should I care about plastic?
In 2015, a study published in Science determined that 8 million metric tons entered our oceans in 2010—enough to cover every foot of coastline in the world. Most of the plastic came from heavily populated countries with poor waste management systems, such as China, Vietnam, The Philippines, and Indonesia.
However, the report failed to acknowledge that many developed countries such as the United States export plastic waste. In 2011, China imported nearly half of America’s plastic waste; when that country began restricting these imports in 2014, plastic exports from the U.S. to Indonesia increased by 219%. (China suspended imports of American plastic in 2016.) In many of these countries, people—including children—become “waste pickers,” sorting through rivers of plastic trash to find pieces to sell while polluted waterways transport the remainder straight out to sea. Plastic pollution is a social justice issue.
I'm anxious about climate change. Why should I care about plastic?
99% of plastic comes from fossil fuels. When we think about climate change, we typically focus on factories, coal and cars, but rarely on this fact. As plastic activists, we usually talk about downstream environmental impacts or health threats, but only marginally on the connection between the plastics economy and carbon pollution. The truth is: Plastic is connected to climate change and it pollutes at every stage—from materials extraction to product production to waste disposal.
Currently, one of the most inexpensive ways to make plastic is through “cracking.” When land is fracked to produce fossil fuels, ethane gas is produced as a byproduct. Cracking plants—also known as “crackers”—convert ethane to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene plastic.
As we diversify our sources for fuel and energy, the fossil fuel industry is betting on cracking to continue expanding its petrochemicals business. Plastic production is projected to triple by 2050. More than $180 billion has been allocated over the next 10 years to build 263 new cracker facilities along the Gulf Coast and in the Mid-Atlantic/Northeast region—both vulnerable to the extreme weather patterns connected to global warming.
For example, Chevron Phillips, which reported one of the largest chemical emissions “spills” after Hurricane Harvey, is building a $6 billion ethane processor in the Gulf region. Ethane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and pollutes our air. Typically built in or near low-income communities of color, cracking facilities pose both environmental and social justice problems.
Furthermore, when extreme weather events caused by global warming occur, flooding causes plastic to escape stormwater systems and enter our rivers, lakes and oceans. Even if you live in a landlocked area, the watershed is vulnerable to plastic pollution.
Okay, I'm convinced: Plastic pollution is a problem. So what's the answer?
When the issue of air pollution dominated the environmental movement in the 1970s, the public and policymakers could look skyward and recognize that preventative measures were the only viable long-term solution. The issue of plastic debris drifting in the middle of the ocean lacks the benefit of visibility to quickly educate the public, leaving persistent misconceptions to drive problem-solving efforts. Remember, the problem isn’t a floating island that can be captured and taken “away.” Cities and manufacturing facilities act like horizontal smoke stacks, pumping plastic into the ocean.
Solutions are found when organizations like 5 Gyres work with people, politicians and corporations to stop emissions at the source. Microbeads are a great example. During a 2012 5 Gyres expedition, we found plastic microbeads—tiny round microplastics used in personal care products—in the Great Lakes in an open-water setting. That research started a movement, which culminated in President Obama signing the Microbead Free Waters Act in 2015. The law will go into effect in 2018.
In 2017, the United Nations announced its #CleanSeas initiative to eliminate single-use plastic bags and microplastics in cosmetics by 2022. With better communication of new science, increased attention to improved waste management, and smarter plastic product design, the problem of plastic debris drifting in the furthest reaches of the planet can be controlled.
I'd like to help with research. Is there a way to get involved?
Yes, absolutely! We engage citizen scientists to monitor plastic marine pollution over time and contribute to our research. If you’d like to gather samples and data, please visit our Science Programs page to learn more.
I just checked and my scrub contains microbeads. What should I do?
Unfortunately, there is no perfect answer to this question. The best thing you can do is dispose of the contents of the tube into a trashcan, where it will go into a landfill, and then recycle the container. Before you do, consider doing a microbeads demo—here's a video that shows you how—so you can show your friends, family or co-workers what microbeads look like.
What can I do today?
Through our action campaigns, 5 Gyres inspires individuals and communities to pledge to go #plasticfree for a day, week, year—or forever. You can go #plasticfree today by refusing the top five sources of single use plastic: plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic to-go containers, plastic takeaway cups, and plastic straws. Follow us @5Gyres to get tips on living #plasticfree, like these:
Bring your own shopping bag. On average, a plastic bag is used for 12 minutes, yet they persist in our environment for decades. Plastic bags are difficult to recycle and clog up machines, light weight so they're easily transported by the wind and water, and they look like jelly fish in the ocean so they're mistaken for food by turtles.
Buy in bulk. Packaging now accounts for 25% of all plastic manufacturing. Buying bigger helps reduce the amount of plastic you consume.
Wear natural fabrics. All materials shed fibers, which escape filtration through wastewater and can end up in the ocean. Unlike wool and cotton, plastic microfibers from synthetic materials like nylon and spandex don't biodegrade. In cases where synthetics fabrics are unavoidable—think bathing suits—try to wash less frequently and by hand.
Carry a reusable water bottle. Seven out of every ten plastic bottles are trashed. Not only does a refillable bottle make good environmental sense, it’s good for your bank balance. Bottled water costs 2,000 times more than (filtered) tap water.
Refuse disposable straws. Americans use 500 million straws every day, which aren’t recyclable, end up in oceans, and kill marine animals. Plus they cause wrinkles. Who needs those?
Refuse lids. Americans use more than 25 billion expanded polystyrene foam—better known as "Styrofoam"—cups each year, and many lids are made from the same plastic. If you forget your reusable cup, order your coffee without a lid.
If you must use a single-use item, choose a material other than plastic. For example, aluminum is accepted at all curbside recycling in the United States; the material is currently 70% post consumer recycled content and holds its value at $2,100 per ton because there is such a strong market for it; although it is not typically marketed as reusable, it is safe to reuse. In contrast, only 60% of cartons are accepted through curbside recycling and those products are, on average, 30% post consumer recycled, with a market value of $55 per ton. Sadly, today only 19% of plastics are accepted at curbside, plastic products average only 3% average post consumer recycled material, and a ton is valued at just $6—while plastic takes up 18% of U.S. landfill space.
Together, we can make a difference—one piece at a time!
1 https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the-new- plastics-economy- rethinking-the- future-of-plastics