Originally published March 25 2008
Plastic Waste is Turning the North Pacific Ocean Into a Garbage Dump
by Tom Mosakowski
(NaturalNews) A swirling, floating garbage dump in the North Pacific Ocean twice the size of the United States has been noticed in recent years and is growing at a swift pace. It is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The number of plastic pieces in the Pacific Ocean has tripled in the last ten years and the size of the accumulation is set to double in the next ten unless the use of disposable plastics is reduced.
While this "trash continent" is not thick enough to be walked on, from the ocean surface to a depth of 30 feet, the plastic is floating at a concentration six times that of its neighboring zooplankton, the most abundant animal type of life both by number and total weight. The plastic can reach concentrations of a million pieces per square mile.
Most of this plastic debris originates from land as trash, being swept out by rivers or the tide. About one fifth comes from ships' cargo and oil platforms. Toothbrushes, cigarette lighters and syringes have accumulated here and everything from Nike sneakers to plastic yellow ducks has been lost from cargo ships.
Due to undesirable wind patterns, most sailors have avoided this area and a natural lack of nutrients in this ocean region has given fishermen reason to look for fish elsewhere. The translucent quality of the plastic just below the water's surface prevents satellites from detecting it. These two factors have prevented the sheer vastness of the garbage accumulation from being noticed until recently.
This region of the ocean is called the North Pacific Gyre. Warm tropical air descends in a clockwise rotation over this vast area of over 10 million square miles. These wind patterns create comparable ocean currents which circle around a center point between California and Japan. The nature of the North Pacific Gyre has created two garbage patches on either side of the Hawaiian Islands. The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch is between California and Hawaii and is twice the size of Texas. The Western Pacific Garbage Patch on the other side of Hawaii is smaller, but still massive. The patches are connected by a 6,000 mile long current which itself can accumulate significant amounts of trash.
All debris that comes within this gyre can be caught in the rotation and concentrated toward the center. The result: 100 million tons of plastic circulating in the northern Pacific according to Charles Moore, the American oceanographer who discovered the extent of this accumulation. This is equal to all the plastic produced by the world in one year.
Until recently, debris in this region did not accumulate because it was easily broken down by microorganisms. However, the production of plastics and their prolific distribution across the globe for the last few decades has been the trump card played to the decomposers of the ocean. Unlike wood and cotton, which can be broken down into such things as carbon dioxide and water within months to years, nothing in the ocean can biodegrade plastics.
The plastic from the 1950s that floated out to the ocean is still there in pieces and will be for a long time.
In the sea, forces of the sun, the waves and collisions with other solids break plastics into smaller pieces and eventually into individual molecules, but this is not the same as biodegradation. As the pieces get smaller they are still plastic and become more harmful. They act like sponges for many chemical toxins, such as DDT and PCBs, and concentrate the toxins up to a million times the levels found in the surrounding water. The plastic pieces, whether mistaken for food or so microscopic as to be unavoidable, are consumed by seabirds and fish, which in turn make it to our dinner plates. This can have disastrous consequences for food webs and human health. Many of these chemicals have hormone disrupting properties that affect both animals and humans.
The world produces at least 100 million tons of plastic each year and about ten percent makes it to the oceans. However, the problem lies deeper than just the surface. About 70 percent of plastic products sink to the bottom. Of the 30 percent that floats, most of it aggregates into patches within gyres.
There has been evidence of a high concentration of plastic in at least one of the other four major ocean gyres in the world.
Great quantities of the trash from these garbage patches have washed up on shores, covering beaches in California and especially the islands of Hawaii.
Chris Parry, a public education program manager who works for the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco said, "At this point, 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 this vast quantity of plastic and garbage would cost billions of dollars. Despite the high price tag, the consequences of creating so much permanent trash should be talked about.
Everyday changes can help to limit the growth of this garbage patch. Reducing your use and purchasing of plastic products will lower the production of plastics. Properly disposing of plastics that you come into contact with will slow their accumulation in the environment.
About the authorTom Mosakowski, B.S. Biochemistry.
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