Plastic Trash Lines the Pacific

One of our astute readers pointed us to this piece published in today’s The independent titled The world’s rubbish dump: a garbage tip that stretches from Hawaii to Japan. IF EVER there was a reason to join Craig in his Just One Thing Challenge. Now is the time!

“A “plastic soup” of waste floating in the Pacific Ocean is growing at an alarming rate and now covers an area twice the size of the continental United States, scientists have said.

The vast expanse of debris – in effect the world’s largest rubbish dump – is held in place by swirling underwater currents. This drifting “soup” stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan.”

Here is a graphic from Greenpeace. Please note that their currents aren’t exactly correct as discovered by Miriam over at The Oyster’s Garter. Come on GP, get your stuff together…

05RubbishGraphic_15022a.jpg

Here is a map from wikipedia commons showing an accurate portrayal of surface currents. Regardless of the map issue, there is an ENORMOUS pile of trash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Is this acceptable?

SurfaceCurrents.png

Click to Enlarge.

Peter Etnoyer (406 Posts)

PhD candidate at Texas A&M University- Corpus Christi and doctoral fellow Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.





34 comments on “Plastic Trash Lines the Pacific
  1. We’ve tried to reduce our plastic bag use and recycle the few that come in. It’s a battle. Locally, people don’t feel they need to pay the 5 cent “disincentive” to get plastic bags, and shop clerks still like double/triple bagging stuff regardless of your wishes, and even if you have a backpack or canvas shopper.

    The other issue is that some genius decided to make bags extra huge and super thin, which has been utterly counterproductive, plastic reduction wise.

    We’ll keep trying. We’re a 90% plastic bag free house now,and have been for a year now, we recycle, and we’re slowly trying to reduce what goes in the garbage at all.

    The other downside here is sewage is dumped right into the harbor. The waterfront smells, there’s trash. It could be the high point of the city and it smells like hell.

  2. Hmmm… Scoop it up, filter it, thermally reform it back into raw hydrocarbons…

    Seriously, I’m confident that at some point in the (not too distant) future, all the crap we’ve thrown away in the last 50-100 years is going to be viewed as a major resource.

  3. There is also the straightforward way: burn it and drive the gases through a turbine.

    After floating in the sea for years, most of that garbage is pure plastic. All organic stuff has been eaten away. Some of it may contain halogens (like PVC), but the rest should burn quite cleanly even in low temperatures.

  4. There is also the straightforward way: burn it and drive the gases through a turbine.

    After floating in the sea for years, most of that garbage is pure plastic. All organic stuff has been eaten away. Some of it may contain halogens (like PVC), but the rest should burn quite cleanly even in low temperatures.

  5. There is also the straightforward way: burn it and drive the gases through a turbine.

    After floating in the sea for years, most of that garbage is pure plastic. All organic stuff has been eaten away. Some of it may contain halogens (like PVC), but the rest should burn quite cleanly even in low temperatures.

  6. There is also the straightforward way: burn it and drive the gases through a turbine.

    After floating in the sea for years, most of that garbage is pure plastic. All organic stuff has been eaten away. Some of it may contain halogens (like PVC), but the rest should burn quite cleanly even in low temperatures.

  7. There is also the straightforward way: burn it and drive the gases through a turbine.

    After floating in the sea for years, most of that garbage is pure plastic. All organic stuff has been eaten away. Some of it may contain halogens (like PVC), but the rest should burn quite cleanly even in low temperatures.

  8. There are some interesting suggestions here! I don’t thinking reburning the plastic is a good idea though because it releases all that locked up carbon back into atmosphere. How about a U.N. fleet of trawl ships that seine the oceans for trash which gets dropped off at recycling centers at major ports (or smaller fishing villages) where it gets sorted, melted and reshaped into new items.

    This put trawlers to work on something other than overfishing, can give ex-fishermen jobs at the recycling plants and makes the oceans safer for both people and animals. Make it a U.N. project so all countries are involved since oceans are global institution.

    What do you think of this idea?

  9. And of course those same surface currents that concentrate the plastic also concentrate those nice buoyant little juvenile sea turtles, to whom plastic looks like a nice cnidarian snack…

  10. What do you think of this idea?

    I saw this story in Scuba Diving last month and had exactly the same thought. I don’t know how small you’d have to go on mesh size to be useful, but it seems like there would be a sweet spot there that wouldn’t obliterate all life.

  11. Re: burning the plastic – the release of carbon wouldn’t be a big issue, because plastic would in effect replace oil as fuel. It may sound sickening, but in this context plastic is in practice a renewable resource!

    But after sleeping over the night, I noticed a real problem: there would still be some salt left in the plastic shreds. Burning would produce HCl, which is pretty nasty stuff.

    But still, any scifi writers out there who need an idea for a story, please feel free to use the idea…

    Re: trawling and transporting ashore – it has lower efficiency. As a fuel, the plastic would be used “on location”, and the boat could use its cargo bay for a payload.

  12. Re: burning the plastic – the release of carbon wouldn’t be a big issue, because plastic would in effect replace oil as fuel. It may sound sickening, but in this context plastic is in practice a renewable resource!

    But after sleeping over the night, I noticed a real problem: there would still be some salt left in the plastic shreds. Burning would produce HCl, which is pretty nasty stuff.

    But still, any scifi writers out there who need an idea for a story, please feel free to use the idea…

    Re: trawling and transporting ashore – it has lower efficiency. As a fuel, the plastic would be used “on location”, and the boat could use its cargo bay for a payload.

  13. Re: burning the plastic – the release of carbon wouldn’t be a big issue, because plastic would in effect replace oil as fuel. It may sound sickening, but in this context plastic is in practice a renewable resource!

    But after sleeping over the night, I noticed a real problem: there would still be some salt left in the plastic shreds. Burning would produce HCl, which is pretty nasty stuff.

    But still, any scifi writers out there who need an idea for a story, please feel free to use the idea…

    Re: trawling and transporting ashore – it has lower efficiency. As a fuel, the plastic would be used “on location”, and the boat could use its cargo bay for a payload.

  14. Re: burning the plastic – the release of carbon wouldn’t be a big issue, because plastic would in effect replace oil as fuel. It may sound sickening, but in this context plastic is in practice a renewable resource!

    But after sleeping over the night, I noticed a real problem: there would still be some salt left in the plastic shreds. Burning would produce HCl, which is pretty nasty stuff.

    But still, any scifi writers out there who need an idea for a story, please feel free to use the idea…

    Re: trawling and transporting ashore – it has lower efficiency. As a fuel, the plastic would be used “on location”, and the boat could use its cargo bay for a payload.

  15. Re: burning the plastic – the release of carbon wouldn’t be a big issue, because plastic would in effect replace oil as fuel. It may sound sickening, but in this context plastic is in practice a renewable resource!

    But after sleeping over the night, I noticed a real problem: there would still be some salt left in the plastic shreds. Burning would produce HCl, which is pretty nasty stuff.

    But still, any scifi writers out there who need an idea for a story, please feel free to use the idea…

    Re: trawling and transporting ashore – it has lower efficiency. As a fuel, the plastic would be used “on location”, and the boat could use its cargo bay for a payload.

  16. I don’t understand why people blame plastic bags. (Yes I recycle and don’t use plastic bags.) But how could that many plastic bags be the problem? Help me understand. I think the garbage is from ships and industries dumping into the ocean, not from people walking on the beach. I am tired of feeling guilty about my water, gas, etc use when big industries are the real problem. Have to find a way to get rid of it that makes money or no one is going to do anything. I hope who ever becomes President goes out to visit the area and does something about it.

  17. @ D. Blake… Have you taken a good look at the side of your freeways? Or driven near a garbage dump? The one near my home has a large pond with access to a river… Completely filled with the glory of white plastic bags.

  18. To follow up on Y’s comment, multiply the trash on your local freeway by 6 billion, the population of the earth. Sure industry is partly to blame. At least in western countries and some leading developing countries, industry is more or less regulated. People aren’t regulated. It could be arguable whether or not the public is more to blame than the industry. I’ve never seen the data either way. But try the calculation out as a thought experiment.

  19. I hope dunc @ #5 is right. When it becomes lucrative to recycle used plastic, hopefully the market will start working it’s magic…

    And kevin z is also right. And he’s just talking about the USA. You want to see rivers of flowing plastic trash and toxins? Try India, China, or a host of other Third World nations.

    We have a global problem here. Although isolated individual households doing their part is a heroic effort, we really do need an international solution, and some regulation that stimulates recycle/reuse by making it more profitable.

    The USA is going to have to stop being an idealogical enemy of the UN at some point. Maybe under a new White House administration, we can tone down the UN-hating, and actually get some collaborative work done.

  20. Unfortunately, there is no realistic fix. We are talking about stuff that is often minuscule in size, spread out over an enormous remote area, contaminated with sea water and stuff growing on it, and weighs 100 million tons!

    We as a species actually need to stop producing and using so much plastic.

    Alan Weisman’s excellent book, The World Without Us, has a section about this gyre on page 122. Most of the plastic garbage comes from the land. Since plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it overtime, blows in the wind or flows down rivers until it reaches the sea. Currents then take it all over the oceans, with much of it ending up in the huge North Pacific gyre.

    More from the book:

    There is six times more plastic than plankton on the gyre’s surface! In India alone, 5,000 processing plants produce plastic bags. Kenya makes 4000 tons of plastic a month with no potential for recycling. Filter-feeders such as jellyfish and salps try to eat the plastic nurdles that litter the ocean by the billions thinking them to be fish eggs or krill. Toxins from plastic are contaminating the food chain.

    All of this plastic has appeared in barely more than 50 years. Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated, all of it is still with us somewhere in the environment. It surpasses 1 billion tons and continues to accumulate at a high rate.

  21. Jellies aren’t filter-feeders, they are passive predators.

    Sure, we need stop producing it, but that doesn’t diminish the damage done. That needs to be mitigated somehow and a discussion needs to go on how to do that without harming sea life. I don’t have an answer right now, but I would love to see a working group on it from the UN or even just out government.

    I can envision oceanographers from 1000 years in the future and doing cores in the deep sea sediment, finding a weird thin layer of plastic strata in between 2 anoxic layers. lol

  22. How come there aren’t any photos of this trash island? I keep hearing about it, but all we see are drawings. If it’s the size of Hawaii why can’t we get a snap shot. Now that would be compelling.

  23. I suspect the density of this massive garbage patch is relatively thin, which is why you’re not seeing pictures of floating plastic bags as far as the eye can see. That’s not to say it’s not an issue, just that the issue is at a scale that’s hard to immediately grasp (large area, low density).

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