The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: The Parabolic Toilet of the Environment
“This is the most shocking thing I have seen”
- Oprah Winfrey
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean there is a maelstrom of debris twice the size of Texas. It has been affectionately given a variety of clever names: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Sea of Trash, the Eastern Garbage Patch, the Asian Trash Trail and (my personal favorite) the Trash Vortex. It is, in short, a spiraling swirl of rushing refuse, mostly of the non-biodegradable plastic variety: shampoo bottles, grocery bags, disposable razors, toys… you know, stuff made out of plastic. Which unfortunately, means just about everything these days. The Plastic Swirl is so big, it even has its own website (cough).
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is formed by currents from the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a mammoth whirlpool of ocean currents and wind, which lies between the Pacific coasts of North America and Asia. This vortex is caused in part by what’s known as the Coriolis effect – famous for its presumed (and erroneous) influence on the direction the water in your toilet spins when you flush it, depending on which hemisphere you happen to be in – and vorticity, which is, in layman’s terms, the tendency for water to swirl. The Patch lies at the epicenter of the Gyre, which itself takes up most of the Pacific Ocean, covering a surface area of 34 million square kilometers or 10 million square miles.
According to a documentary film called “Plastic Debris, Rivers to Sea” by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, a non-profit research and educational organization based in Long Beach, California, studies in the coastal waters of Japan have shown that the amount of plastic in marine environments has increased 10 times every two to three years over the past decade. What’s more, the overall composition of marine debris in all the oceans of the world is about 60-80% plastic. So this is not just an American, Asian or Pacific environmental problem. It’s worldwide.
There are in fact five major ocean-wide gyres: in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, and Indian Ocean. According to Greenpeace, the Sargasso Sea, a large part of the Atlantic lying between Europe and the Americas, “is a well known slow circulation area in the Atlantic, and research there has also demonstrated high concentrations of plastic particles present in the water.”
Starting to feel depressed? Well, since the Garbage Patch is located pretty far from any significant landmass, at least you won’t normally have to look at it. However, if you should take happen to be sailing your private yacht from the California coast to Hawaii, it’s unavoidable. You’re expecting a relaxing voyage through an unspoiled tropical ocean paradise, but suddenly find yourself surrounded by an endless flotilla of waste consisting of billions of plastic bags, bottles and the heads of Cabbage Patch Kids. Remember those?
Captain Charles Moore, founder of Algalita, found just such an ecological nightmare on his way back from a boat race in 1997. He was so struck by the enormity of the environmental catastrophe he was inspired to let the world know about it. Captain Moore has since published two major scientific research papers concerning marine pollution. One shocking result of his research was that the amount of plastic in the central Pacific outweighs zooplankton by 6 to 1. Zooplankton is a broad term used to collectively refer to all the tiny animals that live in the oceans, seas and other bodies of water. They include microscopic animals, shrimp-like krill and other crustaceans, certain molluscs and baby fish. Zooplankton plays a crucial role in the ecology of our oceans, and it is under threat from plastics.
You see, what is most ecologically dangerous about the Garbage Patch may not be the enormous eyesore of swirling milk jugs and the pitiful sight of sea turtles choking on discarded magic markers, but rather what can’t be seen. The biggest problem with plastic is not that it just sticks around in its original molded form, such as a creepy doll’s head or a pair of Hawaiian flip flops, but that it degrades into invisible tiny floating beads the size and shape of small plankton. And it’s in this way that the plastic really enters the ecosystem, by literally entering the bodies of sea life. Certain marine animals – particularly jellyfish – eat plankton, and many marine birds and sea turtles in turn eat jellyfish. This results in serious nutritional deficiencies, hormonal problems and toxicity for these animals and any others – including humans – connected to them via the food chain. Oh yeah, the little plastic beads are also full of pollutants absorbed from the seawater. Now do you see why Oprah was so shocked?
So is there any solution to the environmental fiasco known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? The Environmental Cleanup Coalition has what seems to be a good, albeit ambitious plan, although in an article for July 2008 issue of Discover magazine, Captain Moore himself is decidedly more pessimistic about actually cleaning up the swirl. The only “solution” according to him would be to prevent additional debris from getting into the ocean. This would ultimately mean using a lot less plastic, disposing of it more responsibly and recycling as much as possible.
So the next time you’re swimming in the Caribbean or lounging on a beach in Corfu, please don’t chuck your empty Evian bottles into the sea. And if your beach ball accidently rolls into the ocean and starts to float away, go and get it, or it may end up killing some cute dolphin or a blue whale, not to mention swirling around in a nightmarish Trash Vortex in the middle of our most vital of resources.
By Graham Land
Greenpeace article on the Trash Vortex
Article on Oprah and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from The Huffington Post
Algalita Marine Research Foundation
Link to Algalita documentary “Plastic Debris, Rivers to Sea”