Our Beautiful World

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch


Ducks - or no Ducks? Is that a question to day? Read more here
Migrating birds and the risks. Read more here

There are now 46,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre of the world's oceans, killing a million seabirds and
100,000 marine mammals each year. Worse still, there seems to be nothing we can do to clean it up.
(The United Nations Environment Programme says around 13,000 pieces of plastic litter are found in every square kilometre
of sea, but the problem is worst in the North Pacific)

Courtesy: NOAA

Way out in the Pacific Ocean, in an area once known as the doldrums, an enormous, accidental monument to modern society has
formed. Invisible to satellites, poorly understood by scientists and perhaps twice the size of France, the Great Pacific Garbage
Patch is not a solid mass, as is sometimes imagined, but a kind of marine soup whose main ingredient is floating plastic debris.

It was discovered in 1997 by a Californian sailor, surfer, volunteer environmentalist and early-retired furniture restorer named
Charles Moore, who was heading home with his crew from a sailing race in Hawaii, at the helm of a 50ft catamaran that he had
built himself.

He decided to turn on the engine and take a shortcut across the edge of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a region that seafarers
have long avoided. It is a perennial high pressure zone, an immense slowly spiralling vortex of warm equatorial air that pulls in
winds and turns them gently until they expire. Several major sea currents also converge in the gyre and bring with them most of
the flotsam from the Pacific coasts of Southeast Asia, North America, Canada and Mexico. Fifty years ago nearly all that flotsam
was biodegradable. These days it is 90 per cent plastic.

The size of the patch is unknown, as large items readily visible from a boat deck are uncommon. Most debris consists of
small plastic particles suspended at or just below the surface, making it impossible to detect by aircraft or satellite. Instead,
the size of the patch is determined by sampling. Estimates of size range from 700,000 square kilometres (270,000 sq mi) to
more than 15,000,000 square kilometres (5,800,000 sq mi) (0.41% to 8.1% of the size of the Pacific Ocean), or, in some
media reports, up to "twice the size of the continental United States".[10] Such estimates, however, are conjectural based
on the complexities of sampling and the need to assess findings against other areas.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_Garbage_Patch, Download May 21st, 2012

Photo: © http://greatpacificgarbagepatch.info/

'Bottle caps, toothbrushes, styrofoam cups, detergent bottles, pieces of polystyrene packaging and plastic bags. Half of it was just little chips that we couldn't identify. It wasn't a revelation so much as a gradual sinking feeling that something was terribly wrong here.' What is YOUR opinion? Is something wrong out there?

Floating beneath the surface of the water, to a depth of 10 metres, was a multitude of small plastic flecks and particles, in many colours, swirling like snowflakes or fish food.

The world's navies and commercial shipping fleets make a significant contribution, he discovered, throwing some 639,000 plastic
containers overboard every day, along with their other litter. But after a few more years of sampling ocean water in the gyre and
near the mouths of Los Angeles streams, and comparing notes with scientists in Japan and Britain, Moore concluded that 80 per
cent of marine plastic was initially discarded on land, and the United Nations Environmental Programme agrees.
Does that mean that the amount dicarced on land amounts to about 2.500.000 plastic containers, daily???

Plastic does not biodegrade; no microbe has yet evolved that can feed on it. But it does photodegrade. Prolonged exposure to
sunlight causes polymer chains to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, a process accelerated by physical friction, such as
being blown across a beach or rolled by waves. This accounts for most of the flecks and fragments in the enormous plastic soup
at the becalmed heart of the Pacific,

Laysan albatross flying in air
Photo: Lusk, Michael / FWS (http://www.fws.gov/midway )

On Midway Island, 2,800 miles west of California and 2,200 miles east of Japan, the British wildlife filmmaker Rebecca Hosking
found that many thousands of Laysan albatross chicks are dying every year from eating pieces of plastic that their parents mistake
for food and bring back for them.

Worldwide, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic is killing a million seabirds a year, and 100,000
marine mammals and turtles. It kills by entanglement, most commonly in discarded synthetic fishing lines and nets. It kills by
choking throats and gullets and clogging up digestive tracts, leading to fatal constipation. Bottle caps, pocket combs, cigarette
lighters, tampon applicators, cottonbud shafts, toothbrushes, toys, syringes and plastic shopping bags are routinely found in
the stomachs of dead seabirds and turtles.

A study of fulmar carcases that washed up on North Sea coastlines found that 95 per cent had plastic in their stomachs –
an average of 45 pieces per bird.

Effect on wildlife

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle, Lepidochelys olivacea
Photo: Thierry Caro

Some of these long-lasting plastics end up in the stomachs of marine birds and animals, and their young, including sea turtles
and the Black-footed Albatross. Besides the particles' danger to wildlife, on the microscopic level the floating debris can
absorb organic pollutants from seawater, including PCBs, DDT, and PAHs. Aside from toxic effects, when ingested, some
of these are mistaken by the endocrine system as estradiol, causing hormone disruption in the affected animal. These toxin-
containing plastic pieces are also eaten by jellyfish, which are then eaten by larger fish.

Many of these fish are then consumed by humans, resulting in their ingestion of toxic chemicals. Marine plastics also facilitate
the spread of invasive species that attach to floating plastic in one region and drift long distances to colonize other ecosystems.

On the macroscopic level, the physical size of the plastic kills birds and turtles as the animals' digestion can not break down
the plastic inside their stomachs. A second effect of the macroscopic plastic is to make it much more difficult for animals to
see and detect their normal sources of food.

Research has shown that this plastic marine debris affects at least 267 species worldwide and a few of the 267 species
reside in the North Pacific Gyre.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_Garbage_Patch, Download May 21st, 2012

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has now been tentatively mapped into an east and west section and the combined weight
of plastic there is estimated at three million tons and increasing steadily. It appears to be the big daddy of them all,
but we do not know for sure.

A dead albatross was found recently with a piece of plastic from the 1940s in its stomach. Even if plastic production halted
tomorrow, the planet would be dealing with its environmental consequences for thousands of years, and on the bottom of
the oceans, where an estimated 70 per cent of marine plastic debris ends up – water bottles sink fairly quickly – for tens
of thousands of years. It may form a layer in the geological record of the planet, or some microbe may evolve that can digest
plastic and find itself supplied with a vast food resource. In the meantime, what can we do?

What we cannot do is clean up the plastic in the oceans. 'It's the biggest misunderstanding people have on this issue,' Moore says.
'They think the ocean is like a lake and we can go out with nets and just clean it up. People find it difficult to grasp the true size of
the oceans and the fact that most of this plastic is in tiny pieces and it's everywhere. All we can do is stop putting more of it in, and
that means redesigning our relationship with plastic.'

Based on an article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/5208645/Drowning-in-plastic-The-Great-Pacific-Garbage-Patch-is-twice-the-size-of-France.html, May 21st, 2012.


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