What’s with the floating plastic island and what is a gyre?



Most plastic entering the ocean sinks within the first five months, but the 10% remaining all accumulates where major ocean currents meet, in systems called “gyres”. Contrary to legend, these gyres don’t form massive floating islands, but are highly concentrated regions of small “microplastics” less obvious to the human eye, which actually pose the greatest ecosystem threat. This article explains the issue in greater detail and highlights a few of the expeditions that have helped us gain this understanding.






What is a gyre? 

A gyre in the ocean is a spiral vortex system of rotating currents formed by wind patterns and the planet’s rotation. There are five major constant gyres in the ocean: in the North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Ocean. The movement of currents and gyres in the ocean creates the “ocean conveyor belt”, or thermohaline circulation, which distributes temperature, salinity, and nutrients throughout the ocean (and the planet).[4]

Global ocean currents draw everything in their path, accumulating debris as they go. Unfortunately, these days that means they gather much of the 18 billion pounds of annual plastic pollution en route to the gyres. The center of gyres are calm, stagnant waters that can trap wandering debris for as long as it takes to breakdown, which in the case of plastic can easily take up to 1,000 years. Sadly, our gyres are now famously known as dumping grounds rather than significant oceanographic features.    

The North Pacific Gyre is the largest of the five and home to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch spanning as large as 1.6 million km2 (twice the size of Texas).[5]




Floating island of trash: the myth dispelled.

Most have heard tale of floating plastic islands, or great garbage patches floating in the ocean. While the real issue is just as dramatic, visually, garbage-hunters may be disappointed to find no large, continuous plastic mass visible from space or even from a boat sailing through a gyre.[6]

We already learned that most plastic sinks, and beyond that, as plastic waste makes its way to a gyre, it’s highly exposed to salt water, wind, waves, and most significantly, UV radiation from the sun. While plastic is not biodegradable, it is photodegradable, meaning that when exposed to light, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces releasing greenhouse gases (methane and ethylene) in the process![7]

By the time waste reaches the gyres, it has already broken down considerably, and continues to do so in the calm and confined waters within a gyre, forming a “plastic soup” hardly visible to the human eye.[8] While this may sound less impressive, these tiny pieces are actually far more deadly than the floating landfill we imagine. Small fragments are easily consumed by marine life. Even plankton are eating plastics! These plastics don’t degrade inside their predators, so accumulate up the food chain to the seafood that ends up on our plates.


We are letting plastics choke our waterways and our bloodstreams!

It’s time to take action NOW.





How do we know?

"A Plastic Ocean", directed by Hong Kong’s own Craig Leeson, documents a four-year expedition to the five gyres, beginning with the South Pacific Gyre. Inspiration for the film came from Jo Ruxton’s initial visit to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch where she discovered that free floating microplastics are the issue rather than a giant floating solid mass. In the course of their journey, they found areas in the ocean in which plastic outweighs plankton!

eXXpedition is a series of all-women sailing voyages to make the unseen seen, from the toxins in our bodies to the plastic toxins in our seas. In July 2018, a multidisciplinary crew of 14 international industry experts spent a month sailing in the North Pacific from Hawaii > Vancouver > Seattle gathering samples of microplastic pollution. The 3,000 nautical miles took them through the densest ocean plastic accumulation zone on the planet as well as along coastlines that suffer from intense plastic pollution. Learn more about exxpedition: Making the Unseen Seen.

The Ocean Cleanup hosted a “Mega Expedition” to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with 30 vessels in August 2015. Their vessels sailed in parallel between Hawaii and California, mapping a 3.5 million square kilometer area. To date this was the largest ocean research expedition ever, collecting more data on oceanic plastic than had been collected in the past 40 years combined. Their findings provide insight on the distribution of the size of plastic debris and indicate that previous missions have vastly underestimated the concentration of plastic.



TAKE ACTION: Don’t tire out our gyres.

  1. Take the survey to help inform future educational campaigns and put your ocean hero skills to the test on Questions 3&4!
  2. Eliminate single-use plastic consumption.

    1. Individuals: Follow a list of tips to reduce your waste footprint.

    2. Businesses: Check out The Oceanic Standard certification and learn how to reduce reliance on single-use plastic at your business to earn marketing incentives.

  3. Organize a beach cleanup near you. Clean up the coast (ocean, lake or river) near you and get others involved to see the scope of the problem in your own area.

  4. Spread awareness. As always, spreading awareness of an issue helps increase public attention and policy-makers will be more likely to respond. Share this article via your channels and teach your network how to be more harmonious humans!! <3







[1] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/05/plastics-facts-infographics-ocean-pollution/

[2] https://www.sintef.no/en/latest-news/the-plastic-ends-up-on-the-ocean-floor/

[3] http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf

[4] https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/ocean-gyre/

[5] https://www.theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/

[6] https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/patch.html

[7] https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0200574

[8] https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/ocean-gyre/