The Atlantic Garbage Patch

Our oceans are filled with plastic, and it's getting worse

Author/environmentalist/surfer Mary Osborne. Photo courtesy 5 Gyres

Over the last decade and a half oceanographers have discovered giant masses of plastic and debris swirling in most of the Earth’s oceans. A June 2009 issue of SURFER discussed the Pacific Garbage Patch, which, by some estimates, may be as large as the United States. Here, pro surfer Mary Osborne and 5 Gyres communications and campaign director Stiv Wilson discuss their first-hand experience of the South Atlantic Gyre.

We were invited to do a month-long sailing trip to study plastic pollution with a team from the non-profit 5 Gyres. Together with their partners Pangea Explorations and Algalita Marine Research Foundation, 5 Gyres conducts research about the global impact of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and employ strategies to eliminate its accumulation in our oceans. Every 60 miles, from Brazil to South Africa, we used a trawling device that would allow us to capture samples from the ocean’s surface. As a result, we discovered there is not only a higher density of plastic pollution in the South Atlantic Gyre, but the entire journey across the Atlantic had pieces of plastic pollution visible. As an ocean-lover and environmentally conscious person, I was completely disturbed and utterly shocked at what I saw. I knew these Gyres existed, but I didn’t know the extent of how plastic is destroying our planet, ocean, health, and sea animals until I saw this firsthand and with the help of the 5 Gyres crew.

Why is this happening?
If you divide how much plastic is made for consumption in the U.S. by the population, you get 326 pounds of plastic per year per person. Though we have pretty good waste management, some portion of that escapes into the environment. If you see it in the street, it’s going to end up in the ocean. And in poorer countries, which are often the places we go to surf, they don’t have any way to deal with plastic. Recycling only works if the plastic is more valuable than the cost associated with transporting it to a recycling center. In third-world countries, discarded plastic has no value. And without infrastructure to create landfills, people use it, and try to get rid of it, whether that’s burning it or just throwing it in the river. It all runs downhill.

Why does this matter to surfers?
Surfers are the indicator species for ocean health. We’ve seen pictures from inside the barrel where plastic garbage is actually in the wave’s curtain. Plastic leeches chemicals and it also uptakes chemicals. No one wants to surf in plastic garbage. But beyond sitting in the lineup and watching plastic garbage float by, fish eat this chemical-laden stuff, and we eat fish. This has implications for subsistence fishing in places where we surf, and if surf breaks become garbage dumps, that will afffect the quality of the community where it’s located.

What can we do to help?
Taking some very simple steps can make a huge impact. First, use a reusable water bottle, coffee cup, and bag. Avoid single-use plastic. If you’re surf traveling, you can use a steripen to make the local water safe to drink. Get involved in beach cleanups, or just clean up a little bit when you go to the beach. Be mindful, and tell your surf buddies to remember that a good wave is a resource, one that must be protected. Heck, localism polices a good wave, why wouldn’t you have those locals protecting the beach from garbage?