Continent of garbage grows in North Pacific

We wish we were joking. From Canada’s The Tyee, Nov. 21:

Earth’s Eighth Continent
It swirls. It grows. It’s a massive, floating “garbage patch.”

Located in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii and measuring in at roughly twice the size of Texas, this elusive mass is home to hundreds of species of marine life and is constantly expanding. It has tripled in size since the middle of the 1990s and could grow tenfold in the next decade.

Although no official title has been given to the mass yet, a popular label thus far has been “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

As suggested by the name, the island is almost entirely comprises human-made trash. It currently weighs approximately 3.5 million tons with a concentration of 3.34 million pieces of garbage per square kilometer, 80 per cent of which is plastic.

Due to the Patch’s location in the North Pacific Gyre, its growth is guaranteed to continue as this Africa-sized section of ocean spins in a vortex that effectively traps flotsam.

Few visitors
The cause for the Patch’s relative lack of acknowledgment is that the portion of the Pacific it occupies is almost entirely unvisited. It lacks the wind to attract sailing vessels, the biology to encourage fishing, and is not in the path of major shipping lanes.

What little air movement there is blows inwards, further trapping the garbage.

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Marcus Eriksen, a director at the Algatita Marine Research Foundation, said that “with the winds blowing in and the currents in the gyre going circular, it’s the perfect environment for trapping.”

While the trash is in the ocean, it is doing what could be irreparable harm to sea life, the water it’s in, and eventually humans.

Plastic resists biodegrading. Instead, a plastic shopping bag or pop bottle will photo-degrade over time, meaning that it will break down into smaller and smaller pieces but retain its original molecular composition.

The result is a great amount of fine plastic sand that resembles food to many creatures.

Unfortunately, the plastic cannot be digested, so sea birds or fish can eventually starve to death with a stomach full of plastic.

Even if the amount of plastic in a creature’s body is not enough to block the passage of food, the small pellets act as sponges for several toxins, concentrating chemicals such as DDT to 1 million times the normal level.

This concentration then works its way up the food chain until a fish is served at our dinner table.

A deadly shining

Some birds, attracted to the shining in the ocean, approach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in search of food. Marine researchers have commented that pelicans dissected in that area have stomachs so full of lighters that they resemble convenience stores. Sea turtles are also prone to mistaking plastic bags for jelly fish, which then cause their deaths or sit in their guts for the decades it takes the bags to break down.

In total, 267 species have been reported to have eaten from, or become entangled in, the Patch.

According to Chris Parry of the California Coastal Commission, regrettably little can be done to clean up the Patch, although many urge that a decreased reliance on plastic is the first step.

“At this point,” said Parry, “cleaning it up isn’t an option . . . it’s just going to get bigger as our reliance on plastics continues.”

“The long-term solution is to stop producing as much plastic products at home and change our consumption habits.”

Cleaning up the Patch will likely cost billions of dollars and, as an approximation, be more difficult than vacuuming every inch of the United States. The plastic and garbage reach more than 30 metres down into the ocean and a great number of organisms would be destroyed in the process.

So far, no country has so much as proposed a solution, presumably because no nation wishes to claim responsibility.

Even if all plastic usage were to stop immediately, future geologists would be able to clearly mark the stratum designating the 20th and 21st century by an indelible layer of plastic coating the world’s oceans.

See more signs of global ecological collapse.

  1. some details here may be exaggerated
    I would not suggest that plastic debri in the oceans is not a serious problem, but apparently some details of this story are grossly exaggerated (e.g. “twice the size of Texas”).

    The original source on that story is this one from the SF Chronicle, and this story cites as a source: “Marcus Eriksen, director of research and education at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach”.

    If you look up this guy’s bio: Marcus Eriksen, PhD you’ll find out that his PhD is in “science education” (one might’ve hoped for Marine Biology)

    And according to the wikipedia article (yes, I know) on North Pacific Gyre, the “twice the size of Texas” bit from the Chronicle has no factual basis.

    Perhaps notably, the wikipedia article discusses this as the findings of one researcher,
    Charles Moore
    , who turns out to be associated with the same outfit (“Algalita”) as Marcus Eriksen.

    Evidently, the NOAA is going to start studying this, but hasn’t done much yet: “Bamford said she has noted some ‘gaps in the research’ that suggest the affected area is not as large as Moore estimates.”

    Anyway… in summary: I would guess there’s a real problem here, but the research supporting it (1) comes from a relatively undistinguished team of people and (2) does not appear to have been replicated by anyone else as of yet.

    Sorry if this seems kind of pendantic, but I’m of the opinion that the tendency of activists to exaggerate doesn’t help any one in the long run, and it’s a good idea to watch out for it.

    (A tip passed on to me from friends who have PhDs: they regard people who append “PhD” to their name as complete idiots.)

  2. Plastic Swirl 2007 thru 2009
    Without any doubt a horrific plastic problem exists and is growing at an alarming rate. Am I to believe your article written in 2007 that gives the size of the plastic swirl as, “Twice the Size of Texas”…or a local news program’s statement this month (May,2009) saying, “This plastic island is ‘growing daily’ and is now ‘the size’ of Texas ‘or larger’.” Was it Texas sized in ’07 or now? Well, I personally think the squabble over hype versus non-hype is irreverent.

    I find reality much more terrifying then any hype or non-hype conclusions. Here’s what I surmise: Plastic is an ever growing critical problem that is threatening our very existence. We can easily ‘see’ this by what is showing up on the beaches and in the rockeries across the earth. As well, plastic ‘has’ been found at the molecular level in the deepest parts of all the oceans. Thus stated let’s now face the reality of what we should all find truly terrifying. The plastic problem now comes in line with: the melting of the polar caps, the fouling of the air, the devastation of the rainforests, the driving of animal life to extinction, the growing of the deserts, the over fishing of the oceans. The sheer number of atrocities should easily terrify us (the people of the earth) into global action.

    Yet now we’re faced with another ‘fact’ that I can’t find any historical evidence to disprove. There is no historical record that proves mankind has ever banned together as one to defeat anything so dire. Some sites have stated Adolph Hitler as a global threat that was eradicated. However, it was further stated that Hitler was easy for people to stay focused on because he was constantly on the move to accomplish his agenda which was to rule the earth. Terrified, people banned together and were willing to suffer great sacrifice to rid the earth of Hitler. The problems we face today are much more diverse then those in WW2, and as we know only too well far more dangerous then a sociopathic world ruler.

    Now, a thought from another site said: “I recently saw a SiFi movie with this premise: other planets in the universe decide that if they don’t step in and remove the destructive species (mankind) the earth will surly die.” I saw that movie as well. Now interestingly enough, add the people who come to your door and read the following scripture, “God will bring to ruin those ruining the earth”, very similar. That thought of intervention by something supernatural has sounded quite unrealistic to me in the past. However, here of late and in view of my above statements it is now sounding more plausible.

    As a final thought I’d like to add one more comment that I read while surfing. This one was left in answer to the US government’s recent announcement of their ‘drop in the bucket’ offering of 30 percent less auto pollution by 2016. It went as follows: “The thought of an outraged god finally stepping in is much more terrifying to me then the thought of never being able to drive my Volvo again.” I now find myself in full agreement with that statement.