World’s Largest Landfill is in the Ocean

The Great Garbage Patch

A plastic continent twice the size of Texas, made up of 3.5 million tons of trash may sound like fiction, but the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, is very real.

The garbage patch is located in the North Pacific Gyre, one of the five major oceanic gyres.

The garbage patch is located in the North Pacific Gyre, where ocean currents draw floating plastic from across the Pacific and trap it in the region. (Click here to see an animation of the trash vortex.) You might guess that most of that garbage is thrown from ships, but an estimated 80 percent comes from land-based sources.

Plastic in the Ocean

The durability that makes plastic so useful also makes it an ecological problem.  Every piece of plastic every created (and not recycled or incinerated) is still lying around somewhere — and quite a bit of it is floating in the ocean.

Plastic makes up 90% of all trash in the world’s oceans.  According to the United Nations Environment Program, every square mile of ocean holds 46,000 pieces of plastic, with plastic outweighing plankton by a ratio of six to one in some areas.  Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, says in her book The World is Blue,

“[The garbage patch] is as big, as wide, as deep as the ocean itself.  On every dive I have made in the past 30 years, whether snorkeling or in deep-diving submarines, trash of some sort, and sometimes of many sorts, is visibly present.” (page 94)

Dangers to Marine Life

Animals such as sea turtles and jellyfish may ingest floating plastic, mistaking it for food.  The trash becomes lodged in their stomachs, often proving deadly.  On Midway Atoll, located near parts of the garbage patch, 500,000 albatross chicks hatch every year.  About 40 percent of them die, many from consuming tiny pieces of plastic.

Plastic in the ocean does not decompose, but it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces.  Tiny pieces of trash may be consumed by filter feeders like clams, krill, jellyfish, and baleen whales.  The plastic, which may contain toxic chemicals, moves up the food chain, eventually reaching humans.  Lost or discarded fishing gear also causes problems by entangling seals, whales, otters, and other marine life, as well as damaging boat propellors.

Solutions, Research, and Awareness

Government-sponsored cleanup efforts are challenging because no one nation is solely responsible for ocean pollution.  Also, scientists warn that scooping up the fragments that compose most of the garbage patch could harm marine life.  Despite these difficulties, a number of efforts are being made to reduce the problem.

David de Rothschild, along with a crew of six, is planning to sail the Plastikia sixty-foot catamaran made of recycled plastic bottles — from San Francisco to Sydney.  Their mission is to raise awareness about the garbage patch, as well as other issues affecting the ocean.  You can follow their journey here.

Last year, Project Kaisei worked with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography to study the plastic vortex and its impacts.  This summer, Project Kaisei will launch its second expedition, sending multiple vessels to test equipment that could be used to collect the plastic.  The goal is to determine if the trash could be recycled into new plastic or products such as clothing and diesel fuel.

A rendering of the Plastiki

While collecting and recycling plastic waste may be feasible, one of the best hopes for marine pollution may be to keep it from getting worse.  In 2008, a congressionally mandated report by the National Research Council confirmed marine debris as a crisis and recommended that the United States take a lead in achieving zero waste discharge into the ocean.

But no matter what governments do, concern from individuals is essential to solving the world’s ecological challenges.  Andrea Crump, of the Marine Conservation Society in the U.K., points out, “Every single piece of rubbish has an owner and every single person can make a difference by making sure they take it with them.”

Learn More About the Pacific Garbage Patch

On Nature News+Notes:

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  1. […]  Their destination: Sydney Australia, 8,000 nautical miles away.  Their mission: to document the Pacific garbage patch and raise awareness about ocean […]

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