Updated on August 21, 2017
Updated on August 21, 2017
On November 1, 2016, I set out with a group of Danish sailors and scientists associated with nonprofit Plastic Change in an old-school sloop called the SY Christianshavn to cover more than 3,000 miles from Marina Del Ray, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii, in search of plastic. The goal: cross the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a huge accumulation of (mostly plastic) trash swirling in a clockwise current, or gyre, in the North Pacific Ocean between the U.S. West Coast and Asia. Oceanographer and sailboat racing captain Charles Moore had discovered the Patch in 1997.
Despite much research, the size and significance of the plastic patch in the North Pacific Gyre is still not well understood. But even less understood is the South Pacific Gyre, an area encompassing a counterclockwise current swirling between South America and Australia. One day after my ship left, 20 miles south in Long Beach, another sailboat left port for a plastic voyage across the South Pacific. It was Moore’s ORV Alguilta, a catamaran associated with Algalita (his nonprofit).
In April, Moore announced from his ship that he and his crew had discovered a similar—possibly even larger—collection of plastic in the South Pacific. This makes Moore a two-time Garbage Patch discoverer.
Moore and his crew had sailed from Long Beach, California, through the Galapágos Islands, to Concón, Chile, and back, collecting fish and plastic samples along the way. He has recently written online that he will publish a report analyzing his findings shortly, to be published on his website.
The only other research team to collect plastic samples in the South Pacific Gyre before Moore was that led by Marcus Eriksen of 5 Gyres, another California nonprofit focused on studying and bringing attention to the planet’s plastic pollution problem, in 2011. Eriksen had reported seeing very little debris during his expedition, and later published a study on his findings. Indeed, compared to the North Pacific Gyre, it seemed like the South Pacific contained significantly less plastic.
However, early Moore’s new research suggests that the South Pacific Gyre may be even more densely packed with plastic than the North Pacific, and larger, possibly covering a million square meters. The difference between what Eriksen saw in 2011 and what Moore saw on his recent trip may be due to ocean currents carrying more plastic into the South Pacific and an increased amount of plastic production and pollution worldwide.
The majority of plastic Moore, Eriksen and my crew collected was microplastic—tiny bits of plastic 5 millimeters in diameter or smaller. As I’ve explained previously, plastic never breaks down. Rather, it breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces, thanks to wind, waves and a sun-driven chemical reaction called photodegradation.