Plastic Smog: How 5 Gyres Research Shapes Our Next Goals

A plastic smog pollutes our oceans[i], but it’s a problem that can be solved. Our organization, the 5 Gyres Institute, sailed 3,000 miles from Miami to the Bahamas, Bermuda, then onward to New York City, sampling the sea surface for plastic pollution along the way. Sadly, our research once again demonstrates how prolific and widespread plastic is in our oceans. We found microplastics – pieces smaller than a grain of rice – in every single sample taken during the three-week expedition through the North Atlantic Gyre, a large circular ocean current that is located off the East Coast of the United States.


Plastic pollution

What we found in our samples confirms our understanding that plastics quickly shred in the open sea due to UV sunlight, which makes plastic brittle, alongside wave action that crushes it, while fish tear the plastics apart. The 5 Gyres Institute has dubbed these fragments being consumed by sea life as well as slowly settling to the seafloor: plastic smog[ii]. This plastic smog that overwhelmingly pollutes our oceans has gone global, emanating from our densely populated coastlines at volumes up to 12 million tons annually[iii].

Consider the smog that hovers in the air above our major cities. It consists of a fine particulate of carbon swirling along atmospheric currents and settling to the ground. The plastic smog in our oceans acts in a similar manner, swirling through ocean currents, contaminating our beaches worldwide[iv], being ingested by hundreds of species[v] and slowly settling to the bottom of the sea[vi]. If you can imagine a plastic smog in our oceans, then you can imagine our cities are the horizontal smokestacks pumping plastic into the ocean.

On June 23, 2015, the Mystic, our 172-foot three-masted schooner, sailed into New York Harbor. As usual, we dragged our surface nets up and down the Hudson River and the bay.

Part of the 5 Gyres team

We were shocked by what we found. Our final sample collected south of Manhattan was the most polluted of them all – with nearly 500 bits of plastic filling our tiny net in just one hour. New York City, like most large urban centers, is losing millions of particles of plastic into the ocean every day. The objects we found included cigar tips, tampon applicators, condoms, straws, fragments of plastic bags, preproduction plastic pallets, and hundreds of unidentifiable plastic fragments. New York City is but only one of thousands of cities around the world that feed the plastic smog through sewers that drain city streets or directly discharge sewage to the sea[vii].

The situation may seem dire, but there is tremendous ambition in the resilience of environmental organizations throughout the country that are working to reduce plastic waste entering our waterways. Organizations like Surfrider Foundation, Riverkeeper, NY/NJ Baykeepers, as well as the 5 Gyres Institute and the Plastic Pollution Coalition are working together to stem the tide of plastic. These organizations were part of a wider coalition that worked tirelessly throughout the 2015 legislative session to push the Microbead Bill, which aimed to keep microplastic beads from facial scrubs and toothpastes out of our waterways. (Yes, some toothpastes leave plastic particles between your teeth and gums!)

By the end of that year, federal legislation passed to take microplastic beads out of consumer products.

Even though that marked one major success, it is essential that we all remain vigilant and aware of our plastic consumption. We must also start the conversation about the role of industry to make products that have an end-of-life plan that doesn’t burden taxpayers to manage waste. All of us, including the industries that make plastic products, are responsible for the problem, and through smart, fair legislation and a product-design revolution, we can solve this problem.

Dr. Marcus Eriksen, Director of Research, 5 Gyres Institute

Contibuted by Marcus Eriksen, PhD. Director of Research, The 5 Gyres Institute


[i] Eriksen, M., Lebreton, L. C., Carson, H. S., Thiel, M., Moore, C. J., Borerro, J. C., … & Reisser, J. (2014). Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans: more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. PloS one9(12), e111913.

[ii] Plastic Smog: Microplastics invade our oceans (2013)

[iii] Jambeck, J. R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T. R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., … & Law, K. L. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean.Science347(6223), 768-771.

[iv] Browne, M. A., Crump, P., Niven, S. J., Teuten, E., Tonkin, A., Galloway, T., & Thompson, R. (2011). Accumulation of microplastic on shorelines worldwide: sources and sinks. Environmental science & technology45(21), 9175-9179.

[v] Gall, S. C., & Thompson, R. C. (2015). The impact of debris on marine life.Marine pollution bulletin92(1), 170-179.

[vi] Woodall, L. C., Sanchez-Vidal, A., Canals, M., Paterson, G. L., Coppock, R., Sleight, V., … & Thompson, R. C. (2014). The deep sea is a major sink for microplastic debris. Royal Society open science1(4), 140317.

[vii] Eriksen, M., Mason, S., Wilson, S., Box, C., Zellers, A., Edwards, W., … & Amato, S. (2013). Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes. Marine pollution bulletin77(1), 177-182.