What is the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch?
by Russell McLendon
Here's an excerpt from a fascinating and disturbing article about the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch from Mother Nature Network. The full article may be seen at: http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/translating-uncle-sam/stories/what-is-the-great-pacific-ocean-garbage-patch
Our sincere thanks to everyone at Mother Nature Network (www.mnn.com) for permission to bring you this excerpt.


A swirling sea of plastic bags, bottles and other debris is growing in the North Pacific, and now another one has been found in the Atlantic. But how did they get there? And is there anything we can do to clean them up?

Not all garbage ends up at the dump. A river, sewer or beach can't catch everything the rain washes away, either. In fact, Earth's largest landfill isn't on land at all.
 
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches for hundreds of miles across the North Pacific Ocean, forming a nebulous, floating junk yard on the high seas. It's the poster child for a worldwide problem: plastic that begins in human hands yet ends up in the ocean, often inside animals' stomachs or around their necks. This marine debris has sloshed into the public spotlight recently, thanks to growing media coverage as well as scientists and explorers who are increasingly visiting the North Pacific to see plastic pollution in action.

What's it made of?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has sometimes been described as a "trash island," but that's a misconception, says Holly Bamford, director of NOAA's Marine Debris Program. If only things were that simple.
 
"We could just go out there and scoop up an island," Bamford says. "If it was one big mass, it would make our jobs a whole lot easier."
 
Instead, it's like a galaxy of garbage, populated by billions of smaller trash islands that may be hidden underwater or spread out over many miles. That can make it maddeningly difficult to study — Bamford says we still don't know how big the garbage patch is, despite the oft-cited claim that it's as big as Texas.
 
"You see these quotes that it's the size of Texas, then it's the size of France, and I even heard one description of it as a continent," she says. "That alone should lend some concern that there's not consistency in our idea of its size. It's these hot spots, not one big mass. Maybe if you added them all up it's the size of Texas, but we still don't know. It could be bigger than Texas."
 
While there's still much we don't understand about the garbage patch, we do know that most of it's made of plastic. And that's where the problems begin.
 
Unlike most other trash, plastic isn't biodegradable — i.e., the microbes that break down other substances don't recognize plastic as food, leaving it to float there forever. Sunlight does eventually "photodegrade" the bonds in plastic polymers, reducing it to smaller and smaller pieces, but that just makes matters worse. The plastic still never goes away; it just becomes microscopic and may be eaten by tiny marine organisms, entering the food chain.
 
About 80 percent of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land, much of which is plastic bags, bottles and various other consumer products. Free-floating fishing nets make up another 10 percent of all marine litter, or about 705,000 tons, according to U.N. estimates. The rest comes largely from recreational boaters, offshore oil rigs and large cargo ships, which drop about 10,000 steel containers into the sea each year full of things like hockey pads, computer monitors, resin pellets and LEGO octopuses. But despite such diversity — and plenty of metal, glass and rubber in the garbage patch — the majority of material is still plastic, since most everything else sinks or biodegrades before it gets there.
 

What can we do?

The discoverer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Capt. Charles Moore, once said a cleanup effort "would bankrupt any country and kill wildlife in the nets as it went."
 
"He makes a really good point there," Bamford says. "It's very difficult."
 
Still, NOAA conducts flyovers to study the garbage patch, and two research teams sailed there last summer to collect debris and water samples. Scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography held a press conference after returning from their three-week voyage in August, describing the amount of trash as "shocking." They found large and small items as well as a vast underwater haze of photodegraded plastic flakes, and are now analyzing their samples to figure out how the plastic interacts with its marine environment.
 
Meanwhile, the international Project Kaisei team also spent last August in the garbage patch, studying its contents in hopes of eventually recycling them or turning them into fuel. And "adventure ecologist" David de Rothschild is pushing on with plans to sail around the garbage patch in a boat made entirely of recycled plastics, taking a test voyage earlier this month after a long delay due to construction trouble. Called "Plastiki," the ship is intended to highlight the connection between plastic trash on land and plastic trash at sea — an increasingly evident link, thanks not only to media attention for the Pacific patch, but also the recent discovery of a similar patch in the North Atlantic.
 
Ultimately, more plastic recycling and wider use of biodegradable materials is the best hope for controlling these garbage patches, Bamford says, but that's an uphill battle.
 
"We need to turn off the taps at the source. We need to educate people on the proper disposal of things that do not break up, like plastics," she says. "Opportunities for recycling have to increase, but, you know, some people buy three bottles of water a day. As a society, we have to get better at reusing what we buy."
 



Reprinted with the permission of Mother Nature Network; www.mnn.com