Shiny Science

Lillian Steenblik Hwang – Blog & Journalism Portfolio

More like a thin plastic soup – than a garbage patch


You may have heard of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, an area in the Pacific Ocean where trash, flotsam, and debris has concentrated in an area that is supposedly the size of Texas.

Perhaps, like me, you imagined a giant floating raft of debris consisting of  six-pack soda-can rings, plastic bags, fishing nets and lures, and other large pieces of debris. Those things are out there, but they aren’t the biggest concern.

Much of the plastic pollution in the oceans consists instead of microplastics floating on the ocean’s surface.

“Like a thin plastic soup.” 

That’s how Anna Cummins, co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute and Director of Outreach, described plastic marine pollution in her lecture at the New England Aquarium on October 6.  Her lecture at the aquarium’s harbor side learning center kicked off the Fall 2011 lecture series.

Cummins’s lecture, “Sustainable Seas, Sustainable Me” focused on educating the public about the reality of plastic marine pollution and  encouraged people to consider what they could do to minimize this global problem. She also discussed 5 Gyre’s recently completed global survey of “garbage patches” in the North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Oceans.

picture from Wikimedia Commons

The trash, debris and refuse in the oceans gets concentrated in areas called gyres. A gyre is a massive spinning system of rotating ocean currents, which is caused by the Coriolis effect.  Every ocean has this massive spinning system, which Cummins describes as “the largest toilet bowl that never really flushes, just concentrating our waste”.

According to Cummins, the idea of an island of trash is a publicly held misconception. “Actually” she said, ” it would be much better if there were an island out there. It would help people to visualize it, and we could go out and get it.” Plastic pollution in the oceans degrades into smaller and smaller pieces as it is exposed to sunlight, to create more of a  “thin plastic soup” versus the popular media description of a floating garbage patch.

“The ocean is downhill from everywhere, and we all live in a watershed.” she reminded the audience. Cummins emphasized that the vast majority of plastic filling up the ocean comes from everyday people, and consists of disposable plastic products people use daily.

Anna Cummins and a slide showing an LA river after a rainfall

She also had samples of plastic trawled from the Pacific and Atlantic gyres which were passed around during the lecture.

Cummins made the point that it is not just the marine animals that suffer from plastic pollution in the oceans, but ultimately humans suffer as well.

“Plastics act like a sponge for pollutants in the ocean, (and) these chemicals don’t mix with water, they are hydrophobic and lipophilic. One single particle of plastic can have up to a million times higher concentration of these chemicals than the water around it. With smaller fish eating these tiny pieces of plastic, and bigger fish eating them – she asked the big question is what is getting into our bodies?” 

Cummins made sure to illustrate the severity and widespread problem of micro-plastics permeating our oceans, emphasizing that “Cleaning up the oceans is not really practical…they cover over two-thirds of our planet.” But she also addressed what measures the public can take to try to lessen the damage.

Can we recycle our way out of this? Not really. Cummins clarified “Most plastics we place on our curbs end up getting shipped back to china and down-cycled into other disposable products.”

Plastic debris dredged from the North Pacific Gyre


According to Cummins the best solutions are public awareness, minimizing use of disposable plastic products, and cleaning up local trash to prevent it from entering the oceans. Even small changes such as refusing straws at restaurants, using reusable grocery bags, and picking up just one or two pieces of trash a day can help.

She urged audience members to get involved, educate others, and even to join 5 Gyres on their research expeditions. The next one heads out this summer to the Western gyre in the North Pacific, last studied more than 20 years ago.

There was much more to Cummins’s lecture than could be covered here – If you’re interested – you can watch her entire lecture here, it’s about 55 minutes long.

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