In 1992, a shipping crate containing 28,000 plastic bath toys was lost at sea when it fell overboard on its way from Hong Kong to the United States.

Since that fabled day, the yellow ducks have bobbed all around the world. Some have washed up on the shores of Hawaii, Alaska, South America, Australia and the Pacific Northwest; others have been found frozen in Arctic ice. Still others have somehow made their way as far as Scotland and Newfoundland, clear over in the Atlantic ocean.

ducks_map
Journey of the nearly 30,000 bath toys lost off a shipping container in 1992.

This bizarre story eventually reached media attention, even prompting children’s book author Eric Carle to write a picture book about the ducks and their travels, “Ten Rubber Ducks”. But perhaps the most important person to pick up on the story was oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer. 

Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer
Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer with a few of his “Friendly Floatees”.

Ebbesmeyer quickly began tracking the progress of the plastic bath toys by charting where and when they washed up on shore. Over the next 20 years, Ebbesmeyer used his data to chart the globe’s powerful ocean currents, but also came to shed a light on something relatively unknown to the general public: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

So what exactly is the Pacific Garbage Patch? It’s basically an area of the Pacific ocean the size of Western Europe where circulating currents trap everything (particularly garbage/plastics) in a big revolving circle. Now don’t get the wrong idea, this whole patch isn’t like a massive floating “island” of garbage that you could practically walk on. Instead imagine millions of tiny pieces of trash and plastics (micro-plastics) spread out throughout the ocean. While the majority of the pieces are hardly visible, it is estimated that the plastics outnumber the plankton species by a factor of six. In other words, there are 6 pounds of plastics for every 1 pound of plankton in the garbage patch. (For more information, check out this video: Great Pacific Garbage Patch)

This is a HUGE problem.

Take a look at some of the effects:

    • Over 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds die each year from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic
    • Plastic constitutes approximately 90% of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface, with 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile (this is on AVERAGE; garbage patches can have upwards of 300,000 pieces)
    • The average American will throw away approximately 185 pounds of plastic this year.
    • It takes 500-1000 years for plastic to degrade.

So you can imagine when plastic outnumbers the plankton; the number one food source in the ecosystem, the wildlife is going to suffer. Environmental activist and photographer Chris Jordan shows these effects through his art, often portraying awful depictions of sea animals and birds with plastics spilling out of them.

“There will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050… unless we do something.” -The Ocean Conservancy

Photograph by Chris Jordan from his series Midway: Message from the Gyre.
Photograph by Chris Jordan from his series Midway: Message from the Gyre.

In his photo series, Midway, Jordan shows dozens of birds just like this one. If you’re curious, here is a link to the album: Midway: Message from the Gyre. (Not for the faint of heart)

So how do these plastics get in our oceans? More often than not, waste and garbage is washed out to sea via high-flowing rivers, polluted storm drains, or other weather-related events. But just as we saw with the plastic ducks, even shipping containers can have an impact. And a much bigger one than you might think.

Typical 40-ft. shipping containers washed up on a beach.

While the story of the ducks is the most popular regarding a lost shipping container, it should be pointed out that nearly every hour another one of those 40-ft. long shipping containers are lost at sea. These containers could be carrying anything from 5,000 pairs of Nike shoes to barrels of toxic waste (both of these have washed overboard before). Of the 10,000 containers that are lost each year due to storms or incidents, 10% of them contain harmful chemicals and toxins that seep into the surround ecosystem. And if the container is opened in the process, the waste often ends up in a rotating gyre, such as the Pacific Garbage Patch. Some containers even wash up on shore (see photo). Cargo dumping and container losses actually account for 20% of the waste in our oceans.

What can we do to ease the issue of plastics in our oceans? The answers may seem relatively simple:

  • Try to avoid purchasing products with extra or extensive packaging.
  • Commit to using a reusable water bottle or insist on glass bottles when purchasing beverages (just be sure to recycle).
  • Insist on paper bags over plastic ones.
  • Recycle.

But perhaps the best way to help (especially if you live in a coastal area), is to get involved in a beach cleanup! If you want to join a big group, the Ocean Conservancy offers scheduled cleanups around the globe: Ocean Cleanups. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a rubber duck or two. There are still thousands waiting to be found.

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