From things I’ve read about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, I pictured a huge island of beer cans and disposable lighters and tires. It’s the size of Texas, some reports say, while others have it twice the size of Texas. For some reason, Texas always seems to get dragged into this comparison.
That’s unfair to the Lone Star State for several reasons, not least of which is that no one knows how big that concentration of marine debris really is. There are no panoramic pictures of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from aircraft or satellites, because it’s not the big blanket of trash on the ocean’s surface that I had imagined it to be.
Oh, there’s plenty of junk out there, but most of it is small bits of plastic debris — poisonous confetti. A lot of it is floating just below the surface, making a sort of underwater haze that is not visible from above.
There are certainly areas within the garbage patch that have tangles of fishing nets and bleach bottles and ice chests, but the edges of the entire patch are not clearly defined. Now, here are some short answers to questions that occurred to me about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch…
Where is it? It’s in what scientists call the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, and has accumulated there due to the circular currents of the North Pacific Gyre. That clears it up, right? OK, let’s put it this way — there are a couple of distinct patches of trash. The Eastern one is about halfway between California and Hawaii; the Western one is swirling between Japan and Hawaii. Heads up, Hawaii!
What is it? As mentioned above, there is an assortment of crud, most of which is plastic. It was once in the form of grocery bags or drink cups or pill containers or water bottles; this junk degrades into smaller pieces, but doesn’t lose its toxicity. Small marine organisms ingest it, then fish consume them. Eventually that polyethylene terephelate works its way up the food chain, winding up in your fish-and-chips dinner.
How did it get there? Some of it comes from recreational boaters and other vessels — cargo ships drop thousands of containers into the sea each year, and cruise ships dump tons of solid waste every week. But the vast majority of ocean garbage — something like 80% — started on land. Wind and rivers and storm drains carry it to the coast and into the sea.
No one is blaming you personally, because you’re very conscientious about recycling, but a lot of people aren’t. According to Smithsonian.com, about 3 million tons of plastic are used to bottle water worldwide. Unfortunately, a lot of those bottles find their way into the ocean, and a lot of bottle caps find their way into fish and birds.
What can we do about it? There’s really no way to vacuum up the stuff that’s already out there. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration points out, “straining ocean water for plastics… would capture the plankton that are the base of the marine food web and responsible for 50% of the photosynthesis on earth.”
For now, the best we can do is to not add to the problem; get your friends to be as good about recycling those water bottles as you are. By the way, a garbage patch has also formed in the Atlantic Ocean — it may not be the size of Texas yet, but it’s a whole lot bigger than Rhode Island. And growing.