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, art, education, and adventure. Our vision is a planet free of plastic pollution!

What’s the big deal about plastic?

Plastic was first introduced in the 1950s as a miraculous substance that was cheap, lightweight and could be thrown away after use. We didn’t really realize until later is that plastic can be toxic and it 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.

What is a gyre?

A gyre is simply a circulating system of ocean currents. 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.

Is that the same thing as the floating “Texas-sized island” in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?

No, that “island” doesn’t actually exist. We’ve been there! This idea actually perpetuates the plastic pollution problem, positioning it as something that we can sweep up and “away,” while in the mean time we continue to use plastic without consequence. The truth about plastic in the gyres—and more generally, in our oceans—is more like smog in the air than an island in the water.

How much plastic is in our ocean?

In 2012, we gathered a group of scientists to find out. Together, we determined that there were 269,000 metric tons and 5.25 trillion particles—enough to stretch to the moon and back, twice.

I care about animals, why should I care about plastic?

Plastic pollution is an animal rights issue. It endangers more than 600 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 worried about my 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. As these microplastics are ingested by small and then bigger fish, the toxic chemicals they contain 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 worried about social justice. Why should I care about plastic?

To answer that, we have to begin with the problems of recycling. With oil markets down and without a profitable market in which to sell recycled plastic, it’s not cost-effective for many recycling companies to process it—so many sell it to other countries at a loss. In 2011, China imported nearly half of America’s plastic waste.

In 2016, China banned that practice, but we’re still exporting our trash to places like India, where people—including children—sort through rivers of plastic trash to find pieces to sell and polluted waterways transport the remainder straight out to sea.

I’m worried about climate change. Why should I care about plastic?

In many countries—and even here in the United States—plastic trash is incinerated, creating toxic emissions, which contribute to global warming. Additionally, microplastics in the ocean wreak havoc on an ecosystem that is dependent on phytoplankton, which produce 70% of the earth’s oxygen and sequester 40% of our carbon.

Okay, I’m convinced: Plastic pollution is a problem. So what’s the answer?

Remember, the problem isn’t a floating island that can be captured and taken “away.” Particles make “plastic smog” that permeates our ocean water just like particulate matter permeates our air. Like smog in the air, ocean smog can’t easily be filtered out to fix the problem. We have to stop the emissions at the source.

Solutions are found when organizations like 5 Gyres work with people, politicians and corporations to do the right thing. Microbeads are a great example. During a 2012 5 Gyres expedition, we found plastic microbeads—typically made from polyethylene, polypropylene, polylactic acid (PLA) and polystyrene—in the Great Lakes. 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.

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. Snap a pic with the hashtag #beadfree and we'll share your story on Instagram!

As an individual, how can I prevent marine plastic pollution?

Through our action campaigns, 5 Gyres inspires individuals and communities to pledge 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, water bottles, to go containers, takeaway cups and straws. Together, we can make a difference—one piece at a time. Thank you!