Plastic waste is a killer – why’s it in the gyres?

Plastic waste in the oceans – our waste – may kill this beautiful bird.


Pollution by non-biodegradable plastic waste is a major problem for the oceans, wildlife, and us. One place it collects is in gyres, huge systems of rotating sea currents. The major ones are two in the Atlantic, two more in the Pacific, and another in the Indian Ocean.

Floating plastic waste naturally collects in them, and one estimate is that there are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans. As Laura Parker’s article for National Geographic makes clear: ‘the numbers add up to trouble for the oceans, wildlife, and us.’ 

The waste involved includes the obvious larger items, such as discarded lines, nets and plastic bags, that kill by entanglement, all the way down to smaller pieces that kill by ingestion; the latter include microplastics, small fragments broken down from larger items, and polyethylene microbeads, even tinier particles about one third of a mm in diameter that are used in some toothpaste and facial scrub products.

Chris Jordan, an American environmental artist, photographer and film maker, has been working for years on a project about Midway Atoll, a Pacific island over two thousand miles from the nearest continent. The effect  can be seen there of plastic waste ingestion on albatrosses, one of the world’s most beautiful and iconic birds, and it’s truly devastating.

Plastic bags are given out in vast numbers by supermarkets (8.5 billion p.a. in the UK alone); they’re used for just minutes before ending up in landfill for thousands of years, or in inland waterways and the sea. A bag levy coming soon in England, as already in place in Scotland and Wales, will result in less plastic bags used. It will help a little, but there’s still a massive problem.

What can you do to help?

One answer is to re-use plastic bags, and dispose of them and other plastic rubbish safely. We can encourage people not to drop plastic litter, and avoid using products containing microbeads (look for polyethylene on the ingredients list). Simple measures that, if we all do them, will make a difference.

Another is to support the campaign at the brilliant, and write to your political representative. We need our politicians on board.


Photograph copyright A.P.Jessett

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