Escape From Garbage Island

Lurking in the Pacific Ocean, in a section of sea rarely visited by humans, is a giant floating testament to how much damage we are capable of doing to our planet. On her recent Earth Day special, Oprah Winfrey described it as the "most shocking thing I have seen." The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is exactly what its name suggests – a giant floating island of garbage.

Astonishingly, the garbage patch is estimated to be twice the size of Texas and 90 feet deep in places. Largely unknown to the general public and misunderstood by scientists, the patch is thought to be the result of ocean currents. Much of the garbage that gets dumped into the ocean eventually hitches a ride on a current and ends up in the patch.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered in 1997 when a sailor decided to take a shortcut across a section of the ocean called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a remote section of the ocean which very few boats ever sail though. What he discovered was shocking.

Toxic Fish Food

Although it's not hard to spot everyday items among the garbage in the patch, much of the garbage in the patch has been weathered beyond recognition. Plastic doesn't biodegrade (there's no known microbe that will eat it). This means that every plastic item you've ever used – every bag, every utensil – still exists in some form (and will continue to exist long after you've left the planet). However, plastic does photodegrade, which means that it will break into smaller pieces down under sunlight.

Much of the patch is made up of the tiny bits of plastic that result from photodegradation. These granules of plastic (roughly the size of a grain of sand) float just under the surface of the ocean, to a depth of up several yards. They have been described as looking like "fish food," a swirl of colored particles in the water. These tiny pellets aren't toxic themselves, but they attract toxins that are already in the water. They also, inevitably, end up in the bellies of marine wildlife.

Moving Forward

What's being done to fix this problem? Unfortunately, not much. The patch is estimated to contain three million tons of garbage and it's growing rapidly. Frighteningly, some scientists think that there is another, potentially even larger, garbage patch in the South Pacific (although no one has been brave enough to venture out and verify this hypothesis yet).

At this point, the best thing you can do is to limit your consumption of plastic. Try these tips:

  • Use reusable, rather than plastic, bags when you go shopping.
  • Buy things in bulk, rather than individually packaged items (like snack-size yogurt containers).
  • Stop drinking bottled water. Drink tap water (you can filter it if you want) or, at the very least, water from water coolers.
  • Most importantly, recycle.
Posted by cosmomac on March 8,2010 at 10:31 PM

I appreciate the "what you can do" reference.

We all can  do something with our personal lifestyle choice.  As  far as bottled water goes,

those machines which have like 5 kinds of filtration where you bring your own bottles is

a good way to go.  I certainly would not suggest drinking unfiltered tap water, though.

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