jelly shoes went! A one-mile trawl sample of the
North Pacific Gyre reveals high concentrations
of plastic debris in the ocean.
In the middle of the near-deserted North Pacific, where marine life is limited and wind is practically non-existent, the all-too-common pieces of floating trash are the only visible indication of an ocean-altering problem lurking in the dark and churning waters below. Garbage from all over the globe collects here and has created an underwater landfill that spans an area estimated to be at least twice the size of Texas.
This garbage patch lies within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a massive watery vortex formed by wind and ocean currents. Ocean debris, most of which is plastic, is pulled into the gyre and slowly circulated.
An example of the kind of plastic detritus
recovered from the North Pacific
Subtropical Gyre garbage patch.
It is very common to find marine life,
such as this jellyfish, entangled in
plastic that washed to sea. Eventually,
the jellyfish will die of asphyxiation.
Because plastic does not biodegrade but rather photodegrades into smaller and smaller particles, it gets integrated into the ecosystem. Marine life mistake the indigestible pieces of plastic for food, which then either accumulate in their stomachs or create obstructions that cause choking or starvation.
Interestingly, it’s the smallest plastic particles—polymers—that are the most dangerous. Magnets for oily toxins like DDT and PCBs, the polymers absorb and concentrate these chemicals up to levels a million times higher than they would be in the ocean alone. And, tiny as they are, polymers are eaten by creatures at the bottom of the food chain; the toxic chemicals work their way up and end up right on your dinner plate.
The California-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation is a non-profit organization for the protection of the marine environment and has been a major player in studying and raising awareness of the patch. They’ve conducted two research expeditions (in 1999 and 2008) during which they discovered the gyre’s plastic content is climbing at an alarming rate.
“In 1999, we found six times more plastic than plankton in the patch,” says Charles Moore, founder of Algalita. “In 2008, in the convergence zone that flows into the patch, we found samples with [plastic to plankton] ratios of 40 to one.”
So what can be done?
According to scientists who have studied ocean pollution and the patch, trawling the ocean for all its garbage is not only impractical but would harm plankton and other marine life. Though large fragments can be collected, the polymers cannot, and the best solution now is prevention and a drastic change in the way we live.
“Plastic is the lubricant of globalization,” says Moore. “We package and over-package nearly everything in plastic to ship it around the world—and there’s no way of getting rid of it. It lasts forever.”