The World's Largest Dump: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

In the central North Pacific, plastic outweighs surface zooplankton 6 to 1.

By Thomas M. Kostigen|Thursday, July 10, 2008
RELATED TAGS: OCEAN, POLLUTION
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Tiny plankton and bits of plastic commingle in this water sample taken in the vicinity of the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a large area in the North Pacific Ocean known for accumulations of plastic marine debris.
NOAA

I had never been so excited to see garbage in my life. I was actually giddy. After flying from Los Angeles to the Big Island of Hawaii, I hitched a ride on the research vessel Alguita as it did a shakedown cruise, readying to set sail to traverse the massive Eastern Garbage Patch, which lies between there and California. This rubbish-strewn patch floats within the North Pacific Gyre, the center of a series of currents several thousand miles wide that create a circular effect, ensnaring trash and debris. Around and around: bottles, plastic bags, fishnets, clothing, lighters, and myriad other man-made items, held until they disintegrate, make their way to distant seas, or merely bob among the waves before washing up on someone’s beach.

I learned about the Eastern Garbage Patch, also called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, from studies the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, based in Long Beach, California, has conducted while trolling it seven times over the past decade. The foundation’s fieldwork has revealed an ever-growing synthetic sea where particles concentrate by season, trash commutes in the currents from far-off places, and plastic outweighs zooplankton, retarding ocean life. Fascinating stuff. Captain Charles Moore founded the Algalita foundation and commands its research vessel, the Alguita. (Maddeningly similar names, I know.)

Moore first discovered the garbage patch when he crossed the Pacific in 1997 after competing in the Transpacific Yacht Race. Since then he has been passionate about investigating it and creating awareness about its significance—and the significance of the Eastern Garbage Patch is enormous. His findings have gone a long way toward educating the science community, if not yet the public, on the magnitude of marine pollution and its impact on life—all life.

Sitting on the deck of his boat in Hilo Harbor, Hawaii, last January, he tells me about the crew’s next mission, which is just days away: to map the size, content, and density of the Eastern Garbage Patch. The patch, you see, isn’t well understood. People think it’s like a solid mass of trash you’d find at a dump site (I’ve been asked: “Can you walk on it?” “Can you land a plane on it?”), but it’s really diffuse, like “plastic soup,” as Moore describes it.

But don’t for a second think that its mass isn’t substantial. Its sprawl may cover an area as much as one and a half times? the size of the United States, Moore says, and to a depth of 100 feet, if not deeper. But because this rubbish is in the ocean, it drifts. Fragments peel off here and there; some of it drops to the ocean floor. Even for those who do understand the makeup of the garbage patch, its effect on the marine ecosystem is as yet largely unknown.

Moore, 61, is a scruffy sea captain whose blue eyes are both sad and keen. His salt-and-pepper hair is typically covered by an odd-fitting hat (“Die Trying” emblazoned across its brow). He is, as most sailors go, an old salt.

“In the central North Pacific Gyre, pieces of plastic outweigh surface zooplankton by a factor of 6 to 1,” according to a report based on Moore’s research. “Ninety percent of Laysan albatross chick carcasses and regurgitated stomach contents contain plastics. Fish and seabirds mistake plastic for food. Plastic debris releases chemical additives and plasticizers into the ocean. Plastic also adsorbs hydrophobic pollutants like PCBs and pesticides like DDT. These pollutants bioaccumulate in the tissues of marine organisms, biomagnify up the food chain, and find their way into the foods we eat.”

You’ll notice the emphasis on plastics. Most other materials biodegrade or are not as buoyant as plastics, which do not biodegrade. Their resilience is also their menace, as today plastics have invaded the most distant places, from the Bering Sea to the South Pole. Indeed, when I was exploring a remote beach past the South Point of Hawaii, I found pill bottles from India and mashed pieces of various products—oil containers, detergent jugs, plastic caps—with Russian, Korean, and Chinese writing on them. It’s hard to get your brain around these connections. But float these things did, to shore.

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noaa_hawaii
Image courtesy of NOAA

How trash makes its way to the garbage patch is pretty straightforward. When a plastic cup gets blown off the beach in, say, San Francisco, it gets caught in the California Current, which makes its way down the coast toward Central America. Somewhere off the coast of Mexico it most likely meets the North Equatorial Current, which flows toward Asia. Off the coast of Japan, the Kuroshio Current might swoop it up and yank it eastward again, until the North Pacific Current takes over and carries it past Hawaii to the garbage patch. These are the currents that make up the North Pacific Gyre. Moore says it takes a year for material to reach the Eastern Garbage Patch from Asia and several years for it to get there from the United States. Now multiply that one cup by billions of plastic items over years and years—actually about 60 years, starting after World War II, when we really began to make plastic products en masse.

Marcus Eriksen, Algalita’s director of research and education, has studied that connection between the increasing amount of plastic found in the ocean and the increasing amount of plastic produced: In 1999 there was 0.002 gram of plastic per square meter of ocean in the Eastern Garbage Patch, and as of 2005 there was 0.004 gram per square meter in the same place. In that same period plastic production in North America alone experienced double-digit growth, topping 113 billion pounds in 2006, according to the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Virginia.

Beyond plastic degradation and its toxic ramifications, other refuse issues ensue. Twenty-mile castaway fishnets snare sea turtles, dolphins, and other animals, endangering their populations; birds mistake trash for food, eat it, and die; jellyfish get sick; gnarly junk washes back to shore—some of it hazardous waste. The Eastern Garbage Patch isn’t just a problem for those living in the middle of the ocean; it’s a problem for those of us who are landbound as well.

Moore likens the patch to a cemetery and the trash heading toward it to a series of funeral processions. “There are bigger particles in the processions because they haven’t degraded as much yet,” he says. But inside the patch, where trash has been disintegrating for years—even decades—the particles are much finer. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that 70 percent of marine litter sinks. So who knows what is also building up on the ocean floor?

To be sure, the Eastern Garbage Patch isn’t a lone phenomenon. Off the coast of Japan there is a Western Garbage Patch. And each of the other oceans has its own, albeit smaller, floating patches of debris. Even so, the Eastern Garbage Patch—rooted square between California and Hawaii—is most intriguing and draws the greatest attention because of its size and the fact that it lies closest to the biggest trashmonger on the planet, the United States.

The Alguita’s journey last winter was closely followed by the many who had become aware of the floating garbage dump. Crew members kept a ship-to-shore blog, writing: “We know this plastic trash is a problem.... But in order to get the world to pay attention and start making changes, we need to prove it. We need accurate data and real hard numbers, so we can bring this information to governments, industries, and the public and show them just how serious this issue has become.”

Blog responses came from all over the world, from grade-school children to the elderly, scientists to laypeople.

One asked, “Do we have an answer to the question ‘Yeah, it’s gross, but why should I put it high on my list of world problems that need our immediate attention?’?” It is a good question because marine pollution is one of the most underreported stories today. One glaring answer to the question is this: Around 2.5 billion people rely upon fish for at least 20 percent of their animal protein. When fisheries get polluted, so does the food we eat.

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algalita
Image courtesy of Joel Pashal/ Algalita Marine Research Foundation

The UNEP reports that today 80 percent of all marine debris that washes ashore—such as trash and toxic matter—originally comes from shore-based activities that could have begun with innocent fun, such as picnics and beach outings and the like. Farther inland, rivers and streams carry trash to the sea. Marah Hardt, a research fellow at the Blue Ocean Institute on Long Island in New York, says most people have no clue about their effect on ocean life because they can’t see it. “The ocean is way out there, they think,” she says. Meanwhile, their garbage disposals, drainpipes, and sewers can lead directly to it. Factories dump. Air pollution seeps. This is how the oceans become contaminated.

Solutions offered by the public range from thoughtful to wacky: “Why couldn’t it be possible to collect the larger pieces of trash by skimming the most polluted concentrations with troll nets and attaching them to helicopters that would then deposit them into the path of the ongoing lava flow of Kilauea to be consumed and incorporated into new rock?” one person asked in a blog comment. Other ideas include vacuuming the sea and converting the plastic into an alternative energy source (plastics are made from petroleum).

“We get about one suggestion a week,” says Anna Cummins, an Alguita crew member and education adviser at Algalita.

Moore says the only solution is to prevent more debris from entering the ocean; it is futile to try to clean out whatever exists there now. And without changing our habits, the garbage patch will only continue to grow.

Alexandra Cousteau, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and the granddaughter of the famous explorer Jacques Cousteau, believes awareness and education are the keys to ocean preservation. She and her brother, Philippe, use the media and speak about their environmental experiences to educate people about the importance of protecting the oceans and freshwater resources. Cousteau reminds me that we are all indelibly linked to the oceans. “We live on a water planet,” she says. “Water is life.” Pollution, therefore, is unacceptable, and the Eastern Garbage Patch, anathema.

The samples of trash and marine life gathered during Alguita’s winter voyage—buckets of plastic, garbage, and algaelike organisms—are still being evaluated and lab tested, and the results will be available this summer. But Moore tells me the major finding, in his mind, was the discovery of the further accumulation of trash outside the garbage patch itself, near the international date line—a higher-density collection of waste making its way to the patch. “You can now make a new hypothesis that all food in the ocean contains plastic,” he says. The evaluation of particle ratios—the measure of plastic to organic matter—inside and outside of the patch may bear that out. So may analysis of seawater for the chemical signature plastic leaves behind.

Meanwhile, Moore has plans to go farther and test new waters sometime this fall or early next year. If he can prove that the travesty of plastic pervasiveness in the ocean is worsening (by tracking the amount of plastic per square mile of ocean, as this last voyage did) and that it has an impact on more of the various types of ocean life, even perhaps on the carbon sequestration process that the oceans offer, then international policy might finally begin to address the issue of trash in our seas. That, anyway, is the hope of all his fieldwork.

I remember sailing miles offshore with Captain Moore and his crew in the days before their trek, taking in the sight of two whales spouting and playing, wondering just how much plastic they had ingested.

It made me think how tragic it is that now when we say “blue ocean,” we may be talking about it not so much in the sense of its color but in the sense that it is sad. And for that we have to take more responsibility.

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