Some are convinced that it’s roughly the size of Texas; others say it’s twice the size of the continental United States. Whatever the parameters, a giant accumulation of trash is growing in the northern portion of the Pacific Ocean.
But even more peculiar is that big-name media such as NPR is only now shining a light on its 1997 discovery. Charles Moore found it while sailing amid a high-pressure area devoid of wind and lacking the nutrients to feed many fish. Moore was puzzled to find pieces of floating plastic at or beneath the surface of the water. It took him a week to pass through the particles.
The four converging currents in the Pacific make up what is called the North Pacific sub-tropical gyre: an ocean-sized toilet that never really flushes.
In this mass of plastic are tons of netting and fishing line dumped or lost from fishing vessels, along with millions of particles made from petroleum. All of these pieces will remain in the ocean for — well, no one really knows for how long, because they don’t biodegrade. They break into smaller and smaller pieces, but no organism known to man can consume them.
Even the biggest skeptic can see what our trash is doing to the marine envionment.
The effect plastic has on marine life, particularly the Laysan albatross, is unimaginable. This bird looks like a sophisticated seagull, but with its beak tipped down. Inside its stomach you can find plastic bottle caps, filaments, and other pieces of colorful plastic that it mistakes for food. They starve to death because the pieces are indigestible. This situation doesn’t seem possible, especially with the countless regulations protecting coastal areas, but with so much garbage floating around in the ocean, it has become an unfortunate reality.
One pound of pellets, used to manufacture plastic products, costs about $1 U.S. and contains about 25,000 pellets. This extremely cheap plastic is used in everything from plastic bags to plastic packaging. Wind and water lift these pieces from shipping yards and ultimately out to sea.
The tiny pellets are a concern for humans because they act like mini-sponges accumulating contaminants like DDT and PCBs. They soak up these toxins because of their permeable composition, similar to the way that fat in our bodies can store the same contaminants.
These daunting facts are really good motivation to start an enormous clean-up project. But even if the United States wanted to take responsibility for the mess, which is in international waters, most of the plastic particles are smaller than the eye can see. Clean-up would cost billions and still be ineffective.
Professor Kenneth Bruland of the UC Santa Cruz ocean sciences department offered some advice: “The single most important thing is to stop the source of plastics from going to the ocean,” Bruland said. “It’s our demand that causes the problem.”
It’s time that we realize the effects that our consumption has beyond our tedious and tireless concerns. Why not take the first step and phase out plastic bags over the entire country, like China? Or take it even further and implement life cycle engineering for all products?
Consumer consciousness consists of making small changes like switching to reusable bags. If even the most educated people on the planet continue to use plastic bags in spite of this information, what is higher education worth? If we fail to change our behavior along with our legislation, it isn’t worth a single plastic pellet.