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Thursday, September 13, 2012


The Patch is created in the gyre of the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone
Graphic courtesy of Wikipedia

Seven eighths of our planet is covered by water. When you look into an ocean from the shore or from the deck of a ship, particularly in bad weather, you can’t help feeling overwhelmed by its omnipotent, omnipresent, and infinite nature. By contrast, you feel very small, fragile, and powerless. But, beyond this romance, man, for centuries, has been using our oceans as a dumping ground for everything from garbage to toxic and nuclear waste to sewage sludge with no guilt or remorse, believing that our oceans’ capacity to absorb our waste is also infinite. Throughout history, through the first half of the 20th century, our waste was mostly organic and all floating debris would relatively quickly biodegrade and decompose. Metal, steel, rock, brick, cement and sludge would sink to the bottom, so at least, you wouldn’t see it, and it would essentially remain where you dumped it, where some of it would rust or biodegrade.

But now with the introduction of plastic in the 1940’s and 50’s and the massive proliferation of plastics in the 60’s and 70’s, (the genesis of our throwaway disposable plastic society), still increasing today, all of this has changed, in that much of the plastic floats, and will virtually never biodegrade, Just as tar balls from oil spills and pumice from volcanic eruptions are lighter than water and have floated to every corner of the world’s oceans, so too has much of our plastic waste.

In 1997, while sailing home to California from a yacht race to Hawaii on his boat, the Alguita, Captain Charles Moore, an explorer who had run a woodworking business and had already started a marine environmental organization, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, altered his course to an area of the Pacific northeast of Hawaii, where he discovered an enormous amount of floating plastic debris. A sailor since childhood, he had never experienced anything like this. Moore alerted Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer and friend, who named it the Eastern Garbage Patch, part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This phenomenon had been predicted 9 years earlier in a 1988 paper published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Just as they predicted, much of the world’s floating plastic generated by the United States and Japan and many other countries in the Pacific rim (as well as by ships and oil platforms) was being trapped here  by an ocean current called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. This clockwise current surrounds a huge area and forms a subtropical high pressure zone with very little rain and calm to variable direction winds. All of these conditions work together spiraling the plastic waste into the center of this Vortex, and the area of greatest concentration is now more than twice the size of Texas, and has been explored to 90 feet (30 meters) in depth. (It may be deeper). When Moore first encountered it in 1997, it was less than half its current size, but the size of the greatest concentration of plastic is doubling every 10 years per the NewYork Times, and as reported by MSNBC, it has grown 100 times the size it was in the early 70’s.

(The estimate of “twice the size of Texas” (roughly 500,000 square miles) may be conservative, as we have seen this estimate several years ago, just as we have heard “twice the size of the continental United States”, and even larger. Plastic is pervasive throughout our oceans. The question is the size of the areas of greatest concentration. And the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre isn’t the only one. There are four other major subtropical ocean gyres (currents) collecting high concentrations of plastic debris. The ones in the North Atlantic and in the South Atlantic have been explored to a lesser degree than the Northern Pacific, though they are not yet as large or as dense. Scientists also believe that the gyres in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean are also collecting plastic waste.)

The north Pacific Garbage Patch and the other four major Gyres on a continuous ocean map

Plastics do not biodegrade, but they do photodegrade from exposure to sunlight in the upper water column, and the constant motion of the waves and wind causes the plastic bags and plastic wrappers (for two examples) to break down into fragments the size of a fingernail. There are billions of these small pieces of plastic floating out there in a “plastic soup” like glistening confetti, along with occasional pieces of plastic rope, discarded fishing nets, styrofoam, disposable lighters, cigarette butts, bottle caps, six-pack rings, pens, plastic straws, condoms, tampon applicators, syringes, and lots of nurdles (tiny pellets of raw material in plastic production, which fish and birds mistake for fish eggs and eat), etc., etc.

In our research of how much plastic is in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, we have found estimates as diverse as 3 million metric tons (Mother Jones) and 100 million metric tons (Wikipedia). And as far as density is concerned, Wikipedia reports in a 2001 study, in one square kilometer, Charles Moore found an average of 334,721 pieces of plastic near the surface weighing 5,114 grams. In summary, there is lots and it’s growing, in size weight and density.

Scientists have discovered toxic chemicals and heavy metals from air and water pollution which are naturally attracted to and adhere to these billions of pieces of plastic because these toxins are hydrophobic (think of oil and water). These chemicals include DDT (an insecticide), dioxin and PCB’s (toxic carcinogenic waste products) and oil and floating industrial sludge. Since the density (mass per volume) of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been found to be 6 times greater than that of zooplankton, which is the principle food source for the smaller fish and jellyfish, and since these small pieces of plastic resemble zooplankton, they are being eaten in lieu of nutritious food. The larger fish eat the smaller, and marine birds, and mammals, including dolphins, whales, seals, and also humans, eat fish. The entire food chain is at risk from these toxins. Not much actual research has yet been conducted on the affects of these plastic-borne toxins on each level of the food chain, but these conclusions are the result of conjectures of scientists and doctors based on scientific findings.

On the other hand, there has been much research conducted on marine fish, birds and mammals, which upon investigation have been found to have their stomachs full of small bits of plastic (as much as 84 in a fish 2 1/2 inches long) to cigarette lighters, condoms to bottle caps. In some cases these animals’ deaths have been attributed to blockages caused by plastic objects. In other cases, they die from starvation, though their stomachs are full of plastic. (Birds feed it to their young chicks.)  Another way animals regularly die is as a result of entanglement. MotherJones estimates that 100,000 sea mammals (dolphins, whales, seals, walruses, and manatees) 2,000,000 birds (pelicans, albatross, seagulls, and dozens of other species), and an unknown number of sea turtles and fish are dying annually as a result of exposure to plastic waste. Through our carelessness, we are committing genocide on many of the marine creatures of our planet.

Though these floating plastic garbage patches are invisible to satellite and aerial photography, in further proof that they actually do exist, in 2009, researchers on a Scripps Institute of Oceanography expedition discovered new inhabitants in the Northern Pacific. One of them is an insect called the “salt water skater” (Halibates sericeus).It is much like the fresh water skaters you may have seen on lakes that can walk on the surface tension across the surface of the water. Normally they cannot survive hundreds or more miles from shore, but here they have millions of plastic surfaces on which to lay their eggs and to rest. Another class of new inhabitants is microbes.  Some microbes flourish in salt water and others can only thrive on the surface. Normally you won’t find those surface microbes hundreds or more miles from shore, but now with millions of new surfaces, scientists have found these microbes flourishing. So it looks like we may be altering this eco-system, the effects of which are yet unknown.

Since there are now new (since the late 1980’s) laws and regulations and international agreements against many forms of ocean dumping, including the dumping of plastics, much of the land-based dumping still taking place is accidental (blowing from landfills and garbage barges into our rivers, lakes, bays and eventually our oceans) or covert (illegal dumping, which isn’t adequately policed). 10 to 20% of the plastic waste in our oceans is marine-based, tossed off boats, ships, and oil and gas platforms. Another factor is that over 10,000 cargo containers are annually lost at sea (from container ships lost or tossed around by storms), and so are their cargos, much of which are plastic or wrapped in plastic.

Plastics are cheap and convenient man-made polymers.  Principally produced from petroleum, they are lightweight chains of hydrocarbons that are very strong and will virtually never biodegrade. Certainly they cannot be composted or digested by animals or humans. Globally we produce 300 million tons of plastic per year and other than a tiny percentage that has been incinerated and only about 5% annually that is actually now being recycled, every ton of plastics that has ever been produced still exists on Earth, whether it be in landfills, in our lakes and rivers, or in our oceans. In the United States, though we are only 5% of the world’s population, we consume 30% of its resources and produce 30% of the world’s waste, including plastic waste.

If every military and merchant ship in the US fleet, and all the world’s fleets, were to be dedicated full time to collecting all the plastic in our oceans, it would take hundreds of years. Remediation is impractical. All we can do is to do everything we can to lessen the amount of plastic reaching our oceans today and in the future.

Though individually we may do our part by recycling, by reducing our use of plastic bags, by reusing and not purchasing plastic bottles, and disposing of plastic as carefully as we can, we are all responsible. Just by virtue of the fact that we live in and participate in this convenient throwaway disposable plastic society, we cannot get away from bearing some responsibility. Most every item we buy or use, if it does not contain plastic, it is wrapped in plastic, including the stretch wrapping of pallets. Disposable lighters and razors, plastic food containers, plastic plates, cups, utensils, tampon applicators, condoms, our televisions, appliances, even our precious cell phones, we can’t get away from it, and neither can the animals that live in our rivers, lakes and oceans. And if we are conscientious about recycling plastic bottles, which, unlike many plastics are easily recyclable and are actually recycled in fairly large quantities, don’t you know that they remove the caps, which are rarely recycled? (Most plastic products have molded triangular recycling arrows with numbers 1 – 7, but many of these numbers in most recycling programs are never recycled).

Captain Charles Moore, the discoverer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, in order to highlight the problem of hundreds of millions of the world’s bottle caps found on beaches or floating at sea, arranged a collage of bottle caps sorted by color, and exhibited it to the public. Laughably, included in his visitors to this exhibit were Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver.

On many beaches throughout the world, including ones on the big island of Hawaii and in Alaska, besides the obvious plastic debris that is endlessly being deposited, the white sands are getting darker, and on closer inspection, there is a rainbow of colors mixed in, the size of grains of sand. This is from bottle caps of every color, from every country in the world, that have been broken down to micro-fragments by sun, wind, rain and waves.

We’ve included two videos, and then some notes for the geeks in our audience, who might be interested. (We didn’t want to bog down and bore anyone while telling the story, but some of us geeks find this stuff wildly interesting, so we’re including it at the very end of the post below the videos.) The first video is a very well written NBC News piece with Kerry Sanders telling the story. The second video is a short presentation on the subject by Captain Charles Moore himself, a true Renaissance man. At the end of his presentation, he includes some video from ABC’s Nightline. There are lots of other articles and videos on this subject on the internet. As always, we encourage you to do your own research and to draw your own conclusions. We’d love to get some feedback from our readers. Our email address is Also we’d like to thank our readers in Russia and Germany, our biggest audience so far outside the US, as we would all of our US and international readers. For the sake of our people, our families, and Mother Earth, we encourage all of you, as charter members of Woodstock Earth, to spread the word and help get these stories out. Pacific Ocean death zone

Charles Moore – the Great Pacific plastic trash island

NotesforGeeks: We were fascinated by the background science, but chose to leave it out for efficiency in telling the story. But now we’d like to share it with those of you who might be interested.

All of what we are about to explain involves the Coriolis Effect, having to do with the tremendous energy generated by the rotation of the Earth. Remember, the Earth makes each full rotation in 24 hours, and since the circumference of Earth at the equator is 24,901 miles (40,075 km), each point on the equator is moving West to East at 1,037 miles per hour (1,670 km per hour). That tremendous energy is what keeps the major currents flowing, and also affects the weather.

Of the 5 major subtropical gyres (currents) in the world that are gathering the floating plastic, all are located in the “horse latitudes”, which are roughly 30 to 35 degrees in latitude North and South of the equator. The 2 gyres in the North (the Northern Pacific and the Northern Atlantic Subtropical Gyres) flow in a clockwise direction, and the 3 gyres South of the equator (the Southern Pacific, Southern Atlantic, and Indian Ocean Subtropical Gyres) all flow in a counter-clockwise direction.

Above all 5 gyres are Subtropical High Pressure Zones with good weather, very little rain, and calm to variable direction winds. North of the equator, high pressure zones run clockwise, and South of the equator, high pressure zones run counter-clockwise, just like the gyres beneath them. Historically, sailors
relying on wind in their sails have always avoided these areas, because sailing off course and ending up there could seriously prolong their journeys. The folklore of why they call these the “horse latitudes” (30 to 35 degrees North and South of the equator) is that when the Spanish were busy shipping horses and ended up in these areas, they would run out of drinking water, and rather than feed what was left of their precious drinking water to the horses, they would throw the dead and dying horses overboard into the ocean.

So you see, the ocean currents and the weather and the gathering of floating plastic garbage in these areas are all connected to, and as a result of, the rotation of our planet Earth.

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