five gyres

The Life Cycle of a Plastic Bottle

We’ve all been told that we should recycle plastic bottles and containers. But what actually happens to the plastic if we just throw it away? Here are the life cycles of three different plastic bottles.

Bottle One, like hundreds of millions of tons of its plastic brethren, ends up in a landfill. This huge dump expands each day, as more trash moves in and continues to take up space. 

As plastics sit there being compressed, rainwater flows through the waste and absorbs the water soluble compounds it contains, and some of those are highly toxic. Together they create a harmful stew called “leachate”, which can move into groundwater, soil, and streams, poisoning ecosystems and harming wildlife. It can take Bottle One an agonizing 1,000 years to decompose.

Bottle Two floats on a trickle that reaches a stream, a stream that flows into a river, and a river that reaches the ocean. After months lost at sea, it’s slowly drawn into a massive vortex, where trash accumulates - place known as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” This is one of five plastic filled gyres in the worlds seas. 

Some animals mistake the brightly colored plastic bits for food. Plastic makes them feel full when they’re not, so they starve to death, passing the toxins from the plastic up the food chain, eventually to us.

Bottle Three, on the other hand, is recycled. It’s taken away on a truck to a plant, where it and its companions are squeezed flat and compressed into a block. The blocks are shredded into tiny pieces, which are washed and melted, so they become the raw materials that can be used again. Bottle Three is ready to be reborn, as something new.

So, what can you do? First - reduce your use of plastic altogether! And when you do find yourself needing to buy a bottle, don’t forget to recycle it. You’ll be doing Planet Earth a great, big favor.

From the TED-Ed Lesson What really happens to the plastic you throw away - Emma Bryce

Animation by Sharon Colman Graham


Sea Soup: Mandy Barker’s Photo Collages of Ocean Trash

Scientists have informally dubbed the discarded human waste accumulating in our oceans with a number of names: “soup,” “trash vortex,” and most nobly, the “Great Pacific garbage patch.” The last term makes particular reference to the exceptionally high relative concentrations of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre, one of the five major oceanic gyres on the planet. Gyres, large systems of rotating ocean currents, are the largest ecosystems in the world and, more recently, ground zero for massive accretions of plastic trash. In researching this phenomenon, UK photographer Mandy Barker developed a series of images entitled ‘Soup’ which depicts these plastics and discarded items salvaged from beaches around the world. Presented in beautifully precise, color-coded arrangements, the collected objects appear as a taxonomy of unique species in a toxic “ecosystem.” The images also underscore the longevity of even the tiniest pieces of trash: though haphazardly discarded and forgotten, they form an ever-growing environmental issue. Barker’s project, by bringing a seemingly remote subject into clear view, compels us to address this elephant in the room.


Will a Marine Plastic Harvester Shrink the World’s Giant Floating Garbage Patches?

These gifs show the latest concept from a project called The Ocean Cleanup to retrieve some of the millions of tons of plastic waste choking the world’s oceans. 

The idea is to deploy long floating barriers at mid-ocean gyres that naturally collect garbage shed by land and ships. The booms would be set up so that the motion of ocean currents would do the work to corral plastics in concentrated areas, where a solar-powered collection platform would extract the waste for recycling.

The group, which is led by 20-year-old founder Boyan Slat and includes volunteer oceanography and engineering specialists, estimates it will cost a little less than $5 per kilogram to remove the garbage. They have already completed a proof-of-concept project demonstrating their design and conducted a feasibility study, in which they estimate that each garbage patch that has developed in the world’s five major gyres could be reduced by half within 10 years. The people behind The Ocean Cleanup hope to launch a coastal pilot study sometime in 2016 and to start full-scale operations in late 2019. Learn more and see a video below.

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7 Underwater Facts for World Oceans Day

Today is World Oceans Day, a global day of ocean celebration and collaboration for a better future. A healthy world ocean is critical to our survival. Together, let’s honor, help protect, and conserve the world’s oceans!

1. While the Earth’s oceans are known as five separate entities, there is really only one ocean.

2. The ocean contains upwards of 99% of the world’s biosphere, that is, the spaces and places where life exists.

Both above GIFs are from the TED-Ed Lesson How big is the ocean? - Scott Gass

Animation by 20 steps

3. Jellyfish are soft because they are 95% water and are mostly made of a translucent gel-like substance called mesoglea. With such delicate bodies, jellyfish rely on thousands of venom-containing stinging cells called cnidocytes for protection and prey capture.

From the TED-Ed Lesson How does a jellyfish sting? - Neosha S Kashef

Animation by Cinematic

4. Plastics & litter that make their way into our oceans are swiftly carried by currents, ultimately winding up in huge circulating ocean systems called gyres. The earth has five gyres that act as gathering points, but the largest of all is known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ and has grown so immense that the oceanic garbage patch can shift from around the size of Texas, to something the size of the United States. 

From the TED-Ed Lesson The nurdles’ quest for ocean domination - Kim Preshoff

Animation by Reflective Films

5. The 200 or so species of octopuses are mollusks belonging to the order Cephalopoda, Greek for ‘head-feet’. Those heads contain impressively large brains, with a brain to body ratio similar to that of other intelligent animals, and a complex nervous system with about as many neurons as that of a dog.

From the TED-Ed Lesson Why the octopus brain is so extraordinary - Cláudio L. Guerra

Animation by Cinematic

6. Some lucky animals are naturally endowed with bioluminescence, or the ability to create light. The firefly, the anglerfish, and a few more surprising creatures use this ability in many ways, including survival, hunting, and mating.

From the TED-Ed Lesson The brilliance of bioluminescence - Leslie Kenna

Animation by Cinematic

7. Sea turtles ultimately grow from the size of a dinner plate to that of a dinner table. In the case of the leatherback sea turtle, this can take up to a decade. Happy World Turtle Day!

From the TED-Ed Lesson The survival of the sea turtle - Scott Gass

Animation by Cinematic Sweden

How nurdles are invading our oceans

In our last post, we covered what exactly a nurdle is, and warned that - much to our dismay - nurdles are far more pervasive than most people realize. The thing is, they often escape during the production process, carried by run-off to the coast, or during shipping when they’re mistakenly tipped into the waves.

Once in the water, nurdles are swiftly carried by currents, ultimately winding up in huge circulating ocean systems called gyres, where they convene to plan their tactics. The earth has five gyres that act as gathering points, but the headquarters of Nurdle Ocean Domination are in the Pacific Ocean, where the comparative enormity of the gyre, and the resulting concentration of pollution, is so huge that it’s known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’.

Here, nurdles have good company. This gyre draws in all kinds of pollution. But because they don’t biodegrade, plastics dominate—and they come from other sources besides nurdles, too. You know those tiny beads you see in your face wash or your toothpaste? They’re often made of plastic, and after you’ve flushed them down the drain, some also end up in this giant garbage patch, much to the delight of the nurdles building up their plastic army there. And then there are the large pieces of unrecycled plastic litter—like bottles and carrier bags—transported by run-off from land to sea. Over time these plastic chunks turn into a kind of nurdle too—but one that’s been worn down by the elements, not made in a factory.

And as if they weren’t threatening enough, the rough, pitted surfaces of these microplastics—the name we give to all those collective plastic bits— waterborne chemicals “stick” or adhere to them, making them toxic. This gathering has grown so immense that the oceanic garbage patch can shift from around the size of Texas, to something the size of the United States.

But while this toxic tornado is circulating, the birds, fish, filter-feeders, whales, and crustaceans around it are just going about their daily business—which means they’re looking for food.

Unfortunately for them, tiny bits of floating plastic look a lot like fish eggs and other enticing bits of food. But once ingested, microplastics have a very different, and terrible, habit of sticking around. Inside an animal’s stomach, they not only damage its health with the cocktail of toxins they carry, but can also lead to starvation, because although nurdles may be ingested, they’re never digested, tricking an animal into feeling like it’s continually full, and leading to its eventual death. When one organism consumes another, microplastics and their toxins are then passed up through the food chain.

And that’s how, bit by bit, nurdles accomplish their goal, growing ever more pervasive as they wipe out marine life and reshape the ocean’s ecosystems.

So, how to break this cycle? The best solution would be to take plastics out of the equation altogether. That’ll take a lot of time, but requires only small, collective changes—like more recycling, replacing plastics with paper and glass, and ditching that toothpaste with the microbeads. If we accomplish these things, perhaps over time fewer and fewer nurdles will turn up at that giant garbage patch, their army of plastics will grow weaker, and they’ll surrender the ocean to its true keepers once more.

From the TED-Ed Lesson The nurdles’ quest for ocean domination - Kim Preshoff

Animation by Reflective Films