Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

I am regularly blown away by the number of people who have never heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. So today, after just one more person had never heard of it, it frustrated me enough to mention it here. Yes, it floats in the middle of the ocean, is twice the size of Texas, is basically an island, and is over 80% plastic. Read about it here:
In the broad expanse of the northern Pacific Ocean, there exists the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a slowly moving, clockwise spiral of currents created by a high-pressure system of air currents. The area is an oceanic desert, filled with tiny phytoplankton but few big fish or mammals. Due to its lack of large fish and gentle breezes, fishermen and sailors rarely travel through the gyre. But the area is filled with something besides plankton: trash, millions of pounds of it, most of it plastic. It's the largest landfill in the world, and it floats in the middle of the ocean.

The gyre has actually given birth to two large masses of ever-accumulating trash, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches, sometimes collectively called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Eastern Garbage Patch floats between Hawaii and California; scientists estimate its size as two times bigger than Texas [source: LA Times]. The Western Garbage Patch forms east of Japan and west of Hawaii. Each swirling mass of refuse is massive and collects trash from all over the world. The patches are connected by a thin 6,000-mile long current called the Subtropical Convergence Zone. Research flights showed that significant amounts of trash also accumulate in the Convergence Zone.

The garbage patches present numerous hazards to marine life, fishing and tourism. But before we discuss those, it's important to look at the role of plastic. Plastic constitutes 90 percent of all trash floating in the world's o ceans [source: LA Times]. The United Nations Environment Program estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic [source: UN Environment Program]. In some areas, the amount of plastic outweighs the amount of plankton by a ratio of six to one. Of the more than 200 billion pounds of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the ocean. Seventy percent of that eventually sinks, damaging life on the ocean floor. The rest floats; much of it ends up in gyres and the massive garbage patches that form there, with some plastic eventually washing up on a distant shore.
And no, no one is doing anything about it. Sadly, in our world, unless you have something to profit from it, or unless it begins to bother some really important person, things will remain as they are. Maybe just starting to recycle is not a bad idea. And start cutting back on non-organic materials, starting with plastic. Just a few starters.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ


selkie said...

Actually, we're trying to do our own little bit - to at least spread the word that we should opt out of making the problem worse and hopefully get the governments to pay attention. You can join our Facebook group Pebble in the Pond or visit our site at and also the Algalita Foundation is doing a heroic job. It's such a scary problem but if we MADE the mess we have to be able to CLEAN IT UP!

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ / Mason Slidell said...

Agreed. I'll check out your sites. It blows my mind every time I think about the problem we've caused. I'm teaching Genesis 1-3 to high schoolers right now, and I couldn't help mentioning it to them as a prime example of how sin destroys our relationship with nature.