Monday, November 12, 2007

North Pacific Trash Patch

I first heard about the Great Pacific Trash Vortex on the Rachel Maddow show a few weeks ago. Rachel read about it in a San Francisco Chronicle article from October 19th, 2007. And they were running with a story that is about a year old and was publicized by Greenpeace following their report entitled "Plastic Debris in the World's Oceans." Apparently, there is a pile of trash twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific ocean, and I feel like I must have been living on the Moon not to have heard of this sooner.

So what exactly is going on?

A set of fo
ur currents in the northern Pacific creates a clockwise vortex known as the North Pacific Gyre, which encompasses 10 million square miles, or basically the entire northern part of the ocean. For the purposes of this discussion I have also included an image generated by Greenpeace, which shows the two trouble areas: the Western Garbage Patch near Japan and the Eastern Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California. The Subtropical Convergence Zone, a 6000 mile current that connects the two patches is equally loaded with refuse and has been the center of some recent marine research.

Although it is not a solid island of trash, as the SF Chronicle suggests, this area of the ocean is littered with plastic flotsam. The UN Environment Program estimates that 46,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating on every square mile of the oceans. Captain Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, has come up with the estimation that the the Trash Vortex contains concentrations of plastics on the order of 3.3 million pieces per square km, with an average weight of 5.1 kg of plastic per square km of ocean.

Plastics are notoriously durable, degrading only in the sunlight and even then slowly and incompletely. They contain DDT and PCBs, and are of great danger to marine life. Fish, jellyfish and other underwater creatures consume the degrading plastic, which mimics and outnumbers their foodstuffs (plankton etc). Birds and larger animals consume larger plastic products mistaking them for fish. A study of the albatross at the Midway Atoll, a seabird rookery between Japan and Hawaii, found that of the 500,000 chicks born each year, 200,000 die of starvation and dehydration, their stomachs filled with plastics. 5 tons of plastic are fed by the parent albatross to their young each year at the atoll alone.

Hawaii is not faring any better. The Gyre currents wash out tons of plastic trash onto it's many beaches, covering them with piles several feet tall or even worse, plastic sand which is impossible to clean. 80% of this trash originates on land and is carried through sewers and rivers to the ocean, only to be trapped in the gyre or to be washed ashore elsewhere. Clean up of the Pacific is unlikely. The area is too large, and trawling the ocean may be even more disruptive to the marine life. While clean ups of Hawaiian beaches are underway, and some efforts are being made to capture the trash from rivers (such as the LA river pictured here) before it enters the ocean, the only sure fire way to decrease the growing Vortex is to reduce our use of plastic waste. An average American is estimated to use about 300 pounds of plastic every year. On land, it will take decades, if not centuries for petroleum-based plastics to degrade into carbon dioxide and water, but in the water, where the temperature is low and sunlight blocked out by algal growth, the process will take much longer. Some starch-based 'biodegradable' plastics are currently in production, but these also require land conditions and time to decompose. Recycling is always a good practice but unlike paper and organic waste it is harder to transport and reuse plastics, due to the differences in make up and previous use. Certainly I would encourage everyone to reduce their plastic waste, but at the moment, my outlook on our planet's future is pessimistic.


As a side note, Australian artist Helle Jorgensen is currently working on a project called the Rubbish Vortex, in which she will crochet a creation from plastic bags. Helle also participated in the crochet coral reef, a collaboration of many artists and IFF, which was exhibited in Chicago. Helle's work is beautiful and meaningful at the same time, and brings a little ray of light into my gloomy day.



Update 8-5-2009: CNN is running a story abou the vortex today. Check it out here.

16 comments:

maeverin said...

preaching to the choir, love, but as a sunny side note, the company i work for has actually been trying to find a way to reduce the amount of plastics and styrofoam we go through by buying the biodegradable stuff you mentioned for our everday use (cups, forks, knives, plates... the unfortunate part of the products i saw was that in order for it to be effective, it can't just be dumped in a landfill, it has to be put in a compost pile, and given where we are, that makes it kind of hard.

but not impossible.

this company actually does a decent amount to help keep our waste to a minimum, so here's hoping we can go foward with this idea and be an example for other companies!

Carrie said...

I love Rachel Maddow too! She's great. I can't believe about all that plastic though. I'll try to go see the crocheted coral reef. One of my friends would love to see that!

Regan said...

Hey there.

Thanks for that post. More people do need to know about this.

And.. do you know where the second image/map came from? I'd like to reuse it in a some environmental ed materials I'm working on but wanted to give proper credit.

Thanks so much and take care.

Paulina said...

Thanks Regan. The second map came from Greenpeace. If you follow the link in the post marked "Greenpeace" it will take your right there. Or you can go to http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/oceans/pollution/trash-vortex
Cheers,
Paulina

Anonymous said...

Basically what this boils down to, is everyone is to lazy to wash dishes. Glass is forever recyclable, it never degrades. even if broken it can still be remelted into new sterile glass. Plastic on the other hand does degrade by the sun and oxidation. You only have a short time to recycle plastics after that it goes to a land fill. Put some tupperware out in the summer sun for a couple of months and you'll see what I mean. Thats why people collect old glass bottles they never degrade. When I was kid, all of my toys were made out of metal. Although they didnt last long they were still recyclable. Even if my toy was made of wood it could still be recycled as particle board or compost. Plastics really do suck, they're made from a byproduct of petroleum( basically the waste from making gasoline diesel etc. You think plastics are cool now? Who cares about bio-degradable? Just say "I'm to lazy to wash dishes" and eat with your fingers. Whats worse, looking like a pig at the dinner table or leaving your trash out in the middle of the ocean. That shows you really got CLASS. You want disposable? Mabey you should dispose of the earth. You can just get another one. NO MORE PLASTICS! Use a glass water bottle! Its 100% recycelable and can be perfectly sterilized. Didnt anyone use glass baby bottles? You too afraid you're gonna break it. So What! recycle the broken pieces and get another one. I say BOYCOTT plastics and go back to glass. Everyone is responsible for this island of trash so everyone should have to pay for the clean up. You and your plastic/biodegradeable world. You make me sick.

Only-Green.ca said...

Do you Mind if I link to this Blog on my own Website? I think it's Great and want to Spread the Word.

Paulina said...

go ahead only-green! thanks.

adsense4jake said...

This is our legacy. I am glad I don't have children.

Anonymous said...

300 pounds a year i think is a bit rich

shqdales said...

Thank you for your informative and thoughtful post. I came across this link today - you may find it interesting...

http://www.5gyres.org

Unknown said...

I'd like to know the source of the first map. I'm interested in using it as part of an exhibit about plastics in the ocean.

Paulina said...

I think it came from NOAA.org, but I am not 100% sure. I'm sorry.

Anonymous said...

What everyone forgets is that plastics were shoved down the consumers mouth whether he liked it or not. It is the corporations and their lobbyists who put the breaks on any environmentally sane policies. The citizen is dead being fed on a rich brew of propaganda in Corporate Media Advertising. Now he is called the consumer.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paulina

I would like to use the photograph of the albatross among the plastics in a book. Can you tell me where it comes from, please?

Many thanks
Janet

Paulina said...

Hi! Sorry the links are so old they rarely lead anywhere now. I believe the photo of the albatross belongs to the Algalita Foundation. It is titled "Kure Atoll Albatross". It is possible, though I am not certain, that it may have been taken by Cynthia Vanderlip. I originally got it from the Greenpeace site I linked to but that link is now dead and the site redesigned with new photos.

Paulina said...

Some maps and photos here: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/oceans/fit-for-the-future/pollution/trash-vortex/