A very troubling recent find in our ocean was a huge ‘island’ of trash twice the size of Texas and more than 30 feet deep. Just imagine a 3 story Wal-Mart sprawling from the Mexico border up from California and Arizona, through Nevada, Idaho and the whole west coast (including Oregon and Washington) and you have and idea what I’m talking about. The overall area of this behemoth is twice that of the Continental United States given its depth. Now imagine that there are TWO of them: the Western Garbage Patch just north of Hawaii, and the Eastern Garbage Patch just east of Japan.

Garbage Island

I can’t say it was that recent, as it was predicted by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) back in 1988 and has been tracked (and growing) ever since. So why has it taken so long to get out to the public and why are there still people who don’t believe in it’s existence?

pacific gyre plasticI keep putting ‘island’ in single quotes because it’s not quite what you may imagine, instead of a big mass of floating plastic bottles and trash, it’s actually more like a plastic soup, constantly moving just below the surface of the water. This is why there are no real pictures of the island and you can’t see it on Google Earth, or in satellite images. Without pictures of a so called ‘trash island‘, people are less likely to believe in its existence and the media has no stimulating images or graphics to catch our attention with.

Additionally the plastics have been affected with photodegradation, which causes the plastic to break down into smaller pieces (while still remaining a polymer) and are ingested by smaller and smaller animals throughout the food chain. This allows the plastic to penetrate the entire food chain from the bottom up.

As an example, say some plankton (very small animals at the bottom of the food chain) eat some of this plastic. Then, a hundred of these plankton are then eaten by a small fish, like a Sardine. Then a Mackerel eats 25 of these Sardines. Then a Tuna eats 10 of these Mackerels. Then you eat a Tuna. Well guess what, you just ate a bunch of plastic, just how much? 100 (plankton) x 25 (Sardines) x 10 (Mackerels) = 25,000 pieces! Through a process called bioaccumulation, the amount of a substance is concentrated as it is passed up through the food chain to the top predator, scary huh?

plastic island

Plastic pulled up from the Pacific Gyre by Algalita Marine Research Foundation

A five-year survey of Fulmars found in the North Sea region found that 95 percent of these seabirds contained plastic in their stomachs. Studies of the Northeast Atlantic plankton have found plastic in samples dating back to the 1960s, with a significant increase in abundance in time.
United Nations Environment Program

Ocean PlasticAt this point, the best solution is to stem the cause through a reduction in waste entering our oceans, particularly plastics. I am a huge proponent of a reduction or elimination of disposable plastic bottles and plastic bags through reuse of durable goods like metal containers and canvas bags.

Several cleanup ideas have surfaced which vary from a floating recycling plant, to the melding of plastic into a Utopian island. The most practical and organized appears to come from the Environmental Cleanup Coalition which proposes a large floating cleanup flotilla with an accompanying algae and tuna aquaculture operation to supports costs.

Further research and updates on the Pacific trash gyre can be found on Algalita Marine Research Foundation‘s website.