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Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, the Continent of Garbage
A New Continent
There is a new continent in the Pacific Ocean.
Actually it has been forming for years. It was documented in the 1950s. It is larger now - by some reports it is twice the size of Texas... and growing. The most amazing thing of all is the substance of the island. Can you guess what it is made of?
Plastic. Trash. Junk. Mountains of trash that has not (and will not) biodegraded is trapped in an area roughly 10 million square miles in size... Ten MILLION square miles.The North Pacific Gyre is an area of swirling currents moving in a clockwise pattern that all the major ocean currents lead into. Think of it as an aquatic roundabout in heavy traffic- very difficult to get off of. Over time the plastics and trash that have been intentionally and accidentally (remember the Nike sneaker wash of 1990?) dumped into our oceans have journeyed to the North Pacific Gyre and it remains there. Accumulating at an alarming rate, it is literally forming a continent made of trash.
The Problem of Plastic
Plastic does not biodegrade but it does break down into smaller and smaller pieces. The material in the Pacific Gyre is breaks down into tiny particles of plastic "sand". If you were to travel to the area you would find plastics and trash in various stages of breaking down, from the plastic rings that hold soda cans together to the tiniest pieces of colorful plastic dancing in the current.
Apparently the mass of the plastic particles is six times more than the amount of the natural plankton in the area. This large expanse of ocean is becoming more and more unhealthy and less and less navigable. Currently the plastic is found at depths of up to 30 meters. It is literally creating a landmass.
But that's still not all.
Deadly to Marine Life
Green Peace estimates that a million sea birds a year die form ingesting plastics. The plastic fills their stomachs, they can't digest it and they die, slow agonizing deaths by starvation with full bellies. Sea turtles mistake floating shopping bags for jellyfish, and even the small single celled creatures that act as natural filters for the water have been discovered with colorful flecks of plastic in their transparent bodies. One soda bottle can break down in enough small particles to leave one on every beach in the world!
Why is this a problem? Read on!
The plastic as it breaks down releases large amounts of toxic substances into the water of the Pacific ocean. Whatever might have originally been stored in the plastic: DDT, PCBs, other oils and pollutants, is all released into the water as the plastic breaks down.
Anyone hungry for some fresh, wild caught Pacific Salmon?
Sailing Around the Vortex
In 1998 Charles Moore and his crew sailed through the vortex about 1,000 miles, and using fine mesh net the crew sampled the water at different levels for plastics and plankton. He wrote that every day, as far as the eye could see, plastics and trash floated and bobbed in the waves.
The estimate is that there is 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile of ocean in this area.
Plastic in the Open Ocean
In one way there isn't one. All of that plastic cannot be cleaned out of the ocean, ever. Scientists say that the only possible way to improve the situation is to reduce and even eliminate the use of plastics. Even if everyone totally stopped using it now the plastics all ready on Trash Island would stull be there in a thousand years. If society stopped using it now, thousands of pieces of plastic would still sink to the bottom of the ocean and disrupt the fragile ecosystems there.
In 2001 the average American used over 200 lbs of plastic. A large percentage of that was not recycled.
Future scientists will be able to recognize the twentieth century by a layer of colorful plastics in the layers of earth they dig through. Ocean currents will continue to deposit the trash into the vortex as long as we continue to be irresponsible with the earth. However, by being ecologiclaly responsible we can keep the problem from getting worse.
Practical Steps to Take
It always starts with the small things. Here are a few practical steps you can take.
1. Use canvas bags to shop.
2. Take your own mug to Starbucks.
3. Recycle plastic as much as you can.
4. Use glass and other recyclable materials when possible.
5. Limit the amout of things you buy that are encased in plastic.
6. Continue to educate yourself on the issue and be aware of new information as it is released.
7. Let others know - share the information that you have.
By taking steps to change the habits that contribute to pollution of all kinds, society can make a difference in the future health of the eco-system.