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Written by Lindsay Crowder   
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Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

In the United States, we generate over 400 million tons of trash each year. Some of that waste biodegrades, some of that waste can be recycled, but some of it sits around for hundreds of years with nowhere to go. Some of the most stubborn waste is plastic. Americans alone throw out about 60 million plastic water bottles everyday, use about 20,000 plastic bags in their lifetime, and produce enough plastic to shrink wrap the state of Texas every year. The scary part is that all of that plastic takes over a thousand years to biodegrade and a good amount of it is left lingering in our oceans. Over the past 50 years, as we have transitioned from debris that can be broken down by microorganisms to the almost indestructible and abundant use of plastics. Now, every piece of plastic waste that has made it into our oceans is swirling around in patches that together form a small continent. The largest of this unfortunate mess has been referred to as the “Pacific Trash Vortex” or the “Eastern Garbage Patch,” but it is most widely known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

A crew of researchers led by Charles Moore went to explore the Patch a few years back and decided to take back some of the debris they found, including the following:1
* A drum of hazardous chemicals;
* An inflated volleyball, half covered in gooseneck barnacles;
* A plastic coat hanger with a swivel hook;
* A cathode-ray tube for a nineteen-inch TV;
* An inflated truck tire mounted on a steel rim;
* Numerous plastic, and some glass, fishing floats;
* A gallon bleach bottle that was so brittle it crumbled in our hands; and
* A menacing medusa of tangled net lines and hawsers.
The plastic to sea life ratios are 6:1. Currently, there are no cohesive plans to clean up the mess. Charles Moore estimates that 80% of the garbage comes from land-based sources, and 20% from ships at sea.2 Unfortunately, all of that garbage works harmoniously with the North Pacific currents to keep it out at sea.

The Formation

Picture the large stretch of the Pacific Ocean that lies between the coast of California and Hawaii. The Patch resides in this part of the Pacific; a relatively stationary part of the ocean that is characterized by clockwise currents and light winds known as the North Pacific Gyre. The rotational pattern described by the North Pacific Gyre draws in waste material from the shorelines of the North Pacific Ocean, including the coastal waters off North America and Japan. As material circulates in the current, wind-driven surface currents gradually move floating debris toward the center-taking up to 15 years to make it from shore to center.3The increase in plastic consumption is directly contributing to the growth of the Patch. Plastic is light, it floats, and it is essentially indestructible. Although it does not biodegrade, it does photo-degrade. Photo-degrading is a process in which plastic is broken down by sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces, all of which are still plastic polymers, eventually becoming individual molecules of plastic, still too tough for any organism to naturally digest.4 The Great Pacific Garbage Patch will continue to grow as we continue to throw away plastic.

The Effects on Wildlife

The area in the ocean where the Patch lies is not heavily populated or frequented by humans, making wildlife directly vulnerable to its threats. The floating debris is mistaken as zooplankton by jellyfish, sea turtles, Black-footed Albatross, and other marine birds and animals. Organic pollutants, such as PCBs, DDT and PAHs, can be absorbed in the debris and later ingested. The ingested debris is not only impossible for the wildlife to digest, but it also adds toxic pollutants into the food chain. Hormone receptors cannot distinguish these toxics from the natural estrogenic hormone, estradiol, and when the pollutants dock at these receptors instead of the natural hormone, they have been shown to have a number of negative effects in everything from birds and fish to humans.5 When not eating the garbage, many marine birds, fish, and other animals are also found entangled in the mess.

Is there an End?

If we somehow managed to stop all use of plastic and pick up every bit of garbage that is improperly disposed of, then we may put the growth of the massive Great Pacific Garbage Patch on hold. Charles Moore says, “The levels of plastic particulates in the Pacific have at least tripled in the last 10 years and a tenfold increase in the next decade is not unreasonable. Then, 60 times more plastic than plankton will float on its surface.”6 We must learn to reduce our use of plastics, reuse what we can, and recycle what cannot be reused. Without an organized effort to clean up the mess, it is up to the individual to make an effort to minimize the mess. For more information and how to help, check out

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