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Drifting rubber duckies chart oceans of plastic

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And they were not the only pieces of plastic flotsam around. The Pacific gyre, a huge circular current "is like a toilet that never flushes," says Moore, who has run a number of scientific expeditions to two particularly polluted giant eddies he calls the "garbage patches."

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In those areas, he astonished the scientific community by finding six pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton. Broken down into smaller and smaller particles, "it is insinuating itself into the bottom of the food chain," he worries.

Larger pieces are probably eaten by albatross and other birds, he says: of 28,000 pieces of plastic he analyzed in the Eastern Garbage Patch, only 83 fragments were tan-colored. The rest had probably been snapped up - mistaken for shrimp, he says.

And since plastic is a sponge for pollutants such as PCBs and other chemicals which are estrogenic, Moore worries, "we are changing the sex of the ocean and its creatures," feminizing them.

Pairs of female seagulls have been found nesting together on the California coast, he points out, wondering whether this might not have something to do with the plastic in their diet.

Clues for science

Those plastic ducks that avoided becoming a polar bear's breakfast, or being crushed by icebergs, could tell scientists unexpected things about the ocean, depending on where they eventually wash up, says Ebbesmeyer.

And their story is helpful in educating lay people, adds Peter Killworth, who designs models at Southampton University's Oceanographic Centre in England. "Many people don't realize that the oceans move, that what happens here depends on what happened there," he says. "The ducks are a good lesson in how the environment works in a global way."

En route, the ducks may well have bumped into other equally unlikely denizens of the deep, many of them also spilled from the estimated 10,000 cargo containers that go overboard each year. "It's hard to believe what's floating out there," says Ebbesmeyer, who has tracked Nike trainers, Lego building bricks, hockey gloves, umbrella handles, and even a 50-foot-long US Air Force booster rocket.

This spring, a time of unusual southwesterly winds in the Pacific, West Coast beachcombers have found booty that appears to have been in the sea for decades, such as a plastic ball decorated with 40-year-old cartoon characters, and Japanese glass fishing- net buoys that have not been used for half a century.

"I run a flotsam headquarters" collating informal reports from 1,000 beachcombers around the world, Ebbesmeyer says. And while people in the Pacific Northwest know to look out for what he calls "the most wanted animals," the rest of the world doesn't.

The First Years has received a dozen or so calls from people claiming to have found one of its disappeared ducks, "but they have all been the wrong kind of duck, just things kids have lost on the beach," says company spokeswoman Laura Tomasetti.

"There are so many species of plastic duck out there," sighs Ebbesmeyer, still hoping that a genuine sighting somewhere on the west coast of Ireland, or perhaps in Scandinavia, will confirm his predictions.

"It's a reasonable theory, and like all theories it needs some data," he says. "You can learn a lot from a duck on a beach."