The Pacific Garbage Patch: Myths & Realities

Over time, a few misconceptions about the Garbage Patch have been commonly repeated, and scientists are working to convey accurate information to the public.

 

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Pacific Garbage Patch: Myths & Realities

The Pacific Garbage Patch, the popular name given to the trash that has accumulated in the north pacific subtropical gyre, is one of several areas of highly-concentrated marine debris located in the pacific ocean. Ocean and wind currents move in a circular pattern there, creating a vortex that traps and concentrates floating items in ever-increasing amounts.

 

Map of the location of the eastern Pacific Garbage Patch.

Map of the location of the eastern Pacific Garbage Patch.

 

This spiraling whirlpool of trash between California and Hawaii has captured the imagination of the public—and the attention of the scientific community—since it was first publicized in 1997 by Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, who came across it while on a sailing trip. The eastern Pacific Garbage Patch is created by one of five ocean gyres worldwide; the Algalita Foundation has conducted extensive research on the Pacific Garbage Patch, and most recently took part in an expedition to the North Atlantic Ocean as part of the new 5 Gyres Initiative to determine if other “garbage patches” are forming; the accumulation of marine debris we have seen in the North Pacific may well be occurring in other ocean realms.

Over time, a few misconceptions about the Garbage Patch have been commonly repeated, and scientists are working to convey accurate information to the public.

Myth: The Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas.
Fact: It is impossible to measure the exact size of a gyre because it is a fluid system that moves constantly. But the fact remains that huge amounts of man-made debris accumulate there.

Myth: The Pacific Garbage Patch is like a big island of floating trash.
Fact: No vast island or blanket of garbage is visible in the North Pacific in aerial photographs or satellite images; the accumulation of trash here is like a chunky soup rather than a solid island of garbage you could walk across. Varying concentrations of debris occur in different places at different times; there are at least three separate spots in the North Pacific where currents cause large accumulations of trash. While rubber rain boots, toothbrushes, and food containers can be seen, much of the debris has been broken down by wind, sun, and wave action into tiny pieces that are harder to see, many of them plastic. Scientists skimming the water with fine mesh nets have discovered that in some parts of the Garbage Patch, while tiny marine life called plankton is still more abundant than plastic fragments in terms of numbers, plastic outweighs plankton six to one.

Myth: The solution is easy, we can just clean it up.
Fact: That’s not as simple as it might seem. Finding economically and environmentally viable methods poses a challenge. Locating debris can be tricky because the currents that create the Pacific Garbage Patch shift, moving the litter along with them; time spent searching for it will cost money. Because animals of all sizes, from sea turtles to tiny sea snails, inhabit these trash-laden waters, we can’t just scoop up trash without scooping up essential marine life at the same time.

 

Global Surface Currents: Ocean currents enable trash discarded in one country to land on the shores of another thousands of miles away.

Global Surface Currents: Ocean currents enable trash discarded in one country to land on the shores of another thousands of miles away.

 

Mary Crowley, a lifelong sailor and advocate, went further than most upon learning of the Garbage Patch: she resolved to do all that she could to clean it up. “The huge problem of marine debris, which is mainly plastic, happened on our watch,” says Crowley, who along with two co-founders established Project Kaisei in 2008. “I feel a responsibility.”

In August 2009, Project Kaisei launched its maiden voyage to the Garbage Patch, teaming up with the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography to travel throughout the area gathering marine debris samples, which they are now analyzing. The scientific team on board the tall ship Kaisei recorded a steady increase in debris as the ship moved deeper into the North Pacific Gyre. The Scripps team conducted similar research from a second research boat, New Horizon.

“We were 1,000 miles from shore, with no sign of human life for days, yet our human ‘footprint’ is now apparent there in one of the most remote places on the planet,” says Doug Woodring, co-founder and director of Project Kaisei. “It was shocking to see the amount of small pieces of plastic continuously found in all of our 100 nets, in over 1,200 miles of sampling. This should be a message to everyone that our consumption patterns, and ways in which we dispose of products, have failed us. The water in our oceans is like blood for our planet. If we continue to fill it with toxic materials such as plastic, it will be to the detriment of all life on Earth.”

One idea scientists are exploring is whether the debris can be efficiently cleaned up and converted to fuel or some other useful material. Project Kaisei has already tested some methods that can be used with low energy input and low impacts on marine life, and is ready to test them on a larger scale during a second expedition in the summer of 2010.

Research about this critical region is on the rise along with concern about overall ocean health. With support from Ocean Conservancy and The Coca-Cola Company, researchers at Duke University in North Carolina are compiling all current research on the Pacific Garbage Patch and other similar accumulations of marine debris in order to make a full assessment. They will also evaluate costs and the degree of effectiveness of cleanup options. The growing body of research about the Pacific Garbage Patch will lend itself to a greater understanding of marine debris worldwide.

The reality is that marine debris is now recognized as a major pollution problem around the world—and the Garbage Patch is an ideal living laboratory for investigating the nature of the problem, impacts on water quality and marine life, and science-based solutions. The Garbage Patch has alerted us to the fact that the ocean is not infinite; we can’t just throw trash in it and expect that trash to disappear. Now we know that trash isn’t just accumulating on beaches, but also out in the remotest parts of the ocean. What we learn from the Garbage Patch can help us protect the ocean as a whole—and ourselves—from harmful impacts.

 

Ocean Conservancy



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