In the movie Wall-E, the title character spends his days dutifully compacting trash that generations of humans have left behind. Much of it has barely degraded – things like shoes, toys, appliances, plastic fodder. Today, far out in the Pacific Ocean, a similar landscape exists.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area in the Pacific Ocean, estimated to be the size of two states of Texas, filled with plastic garbage. The flotsam and jetsam in the area are a concoction of trash thrown off of boats, garbage from the West coast of the US, and from the Asian Pacific rim. It is a veritable graveyard of nets, plastic bottles, caps, dolls, syringes, boots, laundry detergent containers, balls, and practically anything else you could imagine. There are also little pieces of plastic floating in between, chewed up by the power of the currents.
How did it all end up there? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was not intentionally created. It happens that The Great Pacific Gyre, a large high pressure system the size of Africa, circulates currents between the Pacific coasts, creating a vortex effect. Debris accumulates and gets sucked into the centre of the Pacific Ocean. The majority of the debris is made up of human created waste that doesn’t biodegrade – plastic.
Captain Charles Moore, founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation, has been studying this growing garbage patch for the past couple of years. A Long Beach native, he grew up with the ocean in his backyard.
At first, it wasn’t the garbage he wanted to research – it was bacteria. After a surfing accident where his arm was almost amputated from an infection from flesh eating bacteria in the ocean, he knew he had to do something about the imbalance in the water. However, lacking the equipment to study the bacteria, he decided to tackle a more visible issue. Since the 1950s, he had seen pieces of plastic debris washing up on the beach in increasing numbers.
Moore decided to get more involved in the marine research effort beyond the citizen’s monitoring team he had been involved in, and started studying the debris in the Pacific Ocean, with the help of some prominent scientists in the area.
Moore describes the technique he has used to conduct his research:
“What we do is drag a net across the area to catch zooplankton – we have a net with mesh a third of a millimetre thick, and we drag it a few inches deep into the water. This area is called the sea surface microlayer, where the sea surface meets the atmosphere. There are certain animals who go down half a mile during the day and come back to the surface at night to feed – we wanted to see the effect of plastic particles on this life.”
Over the many years of study, Moore provides below some of the five takeaways he has realized about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
1. The garbage patch keeps growing.
Moore can no longer place an estimate on the size of the patch – some people estimated it was the size of France – some say it’s the size of two states of Texas.
“We went 10,000 miles and all we saw was plastic. We sailed 2/3 of the way to Japan and there was plastic coming from all directions – it was like a disgusting plastic cesspool. No one really has a handle on the boundary, or what it might even mean.”
All that to say, that given our current rates of consumption of products encased in plastic, or made of plastic, this patch will only grow bigger.
2. The ocean is becoming more and more dangerous to navigate through.
In the ten years that Moore has been studying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it has gotten so muddled with plastic waste that you can’t safely go into the ocean.
“At night, I have to scuba dive under our boat to cut debris off of the motors so we can keep going – this involves risking the lives of my crew members, which is not what I want to do. It’s becoming too dangerous to navigate over millions of square miles of the North Pacific.”
3. Animals have started ingesting the plastic pieces.
“We have found that virtually every creature could be eating this plastic – we looked at seven or eight species of fish, several types of invertebrates, and some birds – they were all eating it. It didn’t matter if it was a small or a large animal – all of the animals were on some kind of strange, plastic diet directly or indirectly.” Since humans are at the top of the food chain, it might just so happen that the plastic container that we’re eating food from may actually one day be in the food we’re eating. If it’s not already.
4. The garbage patch is one of many things contributing to death in the oceans.
Already, there have been stories in the news of entire coral reefs dying out, marine pollution, and massive overfishing. The garbage patch only makes things worse.
Larger species of fish, such as tuna, or large mammals, such as whales, already have high levels of mercury and PCBs concentrated in their bodies. On top of this, the plastic pieces tend to concentrate these chemicals, so when animals swallow these plastic pieces, this adds to the chemical concentrations in their bodies. This is particularly troubling in countries that rely heavily on marine proteins, such as in Japan., where cases of mercury poisoning or Minimata disease seem to be on the rise.
On top of that, the plastic is adding to ocean warming.
“The plastic pieces act as a heat sink – they are like little tiny heaters that block the transpiration of gas, and also concentrate the sunlight.”
Ocean warming is seen as a precursor to dying oceans.
5. There isn’t an easy way to clean up the garbage patch, but there is a way to slow it down.
Unfortunately, we can’t hire a few barges to vacuum up the mess, since there is now sea life thriving among the garbage patch. Secondly, the large size and remoteness of the patch makes it difficult to even know where to begin.
However, Moore suggests that there are a couple things we can do to slow the patch from growing, and over several millennia the ocean will have to heal itself.
“First, which is not so easy, is insist on a zero waste philosophy. In an era of diminishing resources, it’s immoral to use so much when we’re coming to the end of our ability to feed, house and clothe humanity. From a closer perspective, we should also use less plastic or buy things with less packaging. Essentially, packaging has a very short shelf life – products only need to be protected from air and moisture for a short period of time. Plastic as it is currently made, lasts forever – it could very well be that the plastic we make now will last longer than we do.”
Certainly, if we don’t do something, plastic could very well be the artifacts we leave behind for future generations, or for lonely trash compacting robots.
More information on Captain Charles Moore’s research can be found at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation website.