A Floating Island Of Garbage

Deepa Gopal's picture

What if there were a huge landfill almost the size of Texas somewhere on planet Earth, but it couldn’t be spotted by the naked eye, and better yet, you couldn’t even smell it?

The giant pacific garbage patch is not your usual garbage dump or landfill. It is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, stretching between the coastline of North America and Japan and other Asian island countries. Scientists still cannot say for sure how big the patch is, because of how difficult it is to measure the boundaries of the patch. The existence of the patch was first predicted in the late 1980s by the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Charles Moore, an American oceanographer, was the first to run into the patch while taking a shortcut back from Hawaii to the United States. His route took him straight into the North Pacific Gyre, and he was surprised to find himself surrounded by miles and miles of floating garbage.

Now what is a gyre?

The earth has 5-6 major oceanic gyres - a swirling vortex within the ocean which is kept in place by a system of constantly rotating ocean currents. The largest is called the North Pacific Sub-tropical Gyre, which stretches from California to Japan.

The garbage patch is not visible from any satellite, nor does it have floating plastic bags, or aluminum cans - things that you would usually expect in a garbage patch. Instead, it consists mostly of broken down plastic debris and chemical waste, present at slightly below water level in the ocean.

How does the patch form? After all, it’s not like we send ships sailing out into the ocean to dump our land waste every day. What happens is that over the course of many years, the ocean currents (that form the gyre) pull waste and debris that accumulate on the coast lines into the ocean. The rotating currents then slowly pull it all together, thus forming a patch. The debris is mostly drawn from the coasts of North America, and Japan. While most of the debris is drawn from land, cruise ships and fishing trawlers also contribute to the patch.

Is the patch harmful?

Well, for one, the plastic debris can harm sea life, and can find its way into the sea food we eat. Plastic is not bio-degradable, which means it cannot be absorbed by the earth. In the ocean, due to the sun's ultraviolet rays and ocean currents, the plastic polymers get broken down into smaller particles. However they do not completely disappear. Some plastics have toxins that are slowly dissipated in the water.

The small plastic particles are mistaken for food and ingested by animals and birds, which poses a threat to their lives. Sometimes the marine animals get entangled in the plastic nets and rings.

What can you and I do?

We can consume fewer products that contain plastics or are packaged with plastics; we can use fewer plastic bags when we shop; we can be careful about disposing off waste by the ocean; we can make smart choices about traveling by ships or taking vacations at sea. So for instance, if your family is planning to go on a cruise, be sure to find out from the cruise company what methods they follow to dispose off their waste. If you eat fish, or other sea food, find out how the fish or sea food is grown and harvested.

Do you have more ideas on how we can reduce waste, either on land or at sea? Share your ideas with us!