Described as “marine litter” plastic is accumulating in several ocean regions around the world called gyres, where currents circle, and push water toward the center, trapping the floating debris. There are five major gyres in the world, one in each major ocean. This debris described as marine litter is a misnomer, as the majority, or about 80% of it originates from land, much of it inland, and far from the shores.
The North Atlantic Garbage Gyre
There is a massive garbage patch that has been discovered in the Atlantic Ocean that is about one thousand miles long.
Billions of pieces of plastic trash are accumulating in across the Atlantic Ocean, and it’s as big as the one that is the size of the state of Texas in the Pacific Ocean.
The Atlantic garbage patch is located hundreds of miles off the coast of North America — between 22 and 38 degrees north latitude, or about the distance from Cuba to Virginia. The patch poses health risks to fish, seabirds and marine animals.
Like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the debris can circulate for years, accumulating as the result of the ocean currents.
The patch was found by student researchers participating in the Sea Education Association, who for more than twenty-two years deployed thousands of fine-meshed plankton nets in the area to discover the makeup of the patch.
The Sea Education Association found that most of the debris is comprised of tiny pieces of trash — each less than a tenth the weight of a paper clip. This debris originated from consumer product litter either blown off open landfills or directly disposed of in the ocean.
Students found some areas as dense as 520,000 bits per square mile, or approximately 200,000 bits per square kilometer.
In comparison, spots of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch have been found to be as dense as 1.9 million bits per square mile, or approximately 750,000 bits of plastic per square kilometer (and several tens of feet below the surface).
The Pacific Trash Gyre
Researchers are constantly learning more about the extent of the Pacific Garbage Patch, and find ways to clean up the damage. Simply put, it’s a swirling mass of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that’s about the size as the state of Texas. Some researchers say the Pacific Garbage Patch may cover an area as large as twice the size of Texas, or about 262,000 – 524,000 square miles. The Pacific Trash Gyre is located about 1,000 miles west of California and 1,000 miles north of Hawaii in an area called the North Pacific Gyre, where currents from the equator, North America and Asia swirl together and deposit trash, mostly plastic.
The Pacific Trash Gyre is roughly located in an area between 135° to 155°W and 35° to 42°N. Much of the world’s trash has accumulated into this part of the Pacific Ocean based on the movement of ocean currents.
The North Pacific gyre circles clock wise, running down the side of North America, the USA and Mexico in particular, swooping across just north of the equator, and up past China and Japan, to where it returns across the ocean to North America. You can imagine the vortex created as things get pulled into the center.
How does all that plastic get to the ocean?
Human Consumption + Disposal + Negligence + Ocean Currents = Trash Vortex.
People create, consume, and carelessly toss plastics and the litter ends up in the waterways. As the plastic reaches the shoreline, currents carry it out into the ocean and a convergence of currents swirl the plastics into one general area.
No one is guiltless when it comes to the Pacific Garbage Patch. If you consume and discard goods, you are responsible for some portion of the trash that ends up in the ocean, even if you live hundreds of miles from the seaside because nearly all rivers lead to the sea. Trash that ends up in a stream in the middle of the U.S. can end up in the ocean and, with the help of ocean currents, find itself in the middle of a trash vortex.
What’s the impact of marine litter on wildlife?
The plastics found in the ocean have a dire effect on marine life. Turtles confuse plastic bags for jellyfish and birds confuse bottle caps for food. They ingest them but can’t digest them, so their stomachs fill with plastic and they starve to death, even though they continue trying to eat. Greenpeace reports that 70% of the human waste that ends up in the oceans finds its way to the bottom of the water.
Additionally, fish on the low-end of the food chain consume tiny bits of plastic. Those fish are then eaten by larger fish, which we catch and consume. As a result we are now consuming the plastic that corporations manufacture.
This isn’t the only organism to ingest our plastic waste– sea turtles, fish, jelly fish, and others– are all known to have mistaken brightly colored bits of plastic as food. Not only is the plastic non-ingestible and can do all sorts of harm to their stomachs and throats (imagine swallowing a Frisbee every day), but also plastic contains a host of toxic chemicals like cancer causing BPA (bisphenol A) and Polystyrene (which contains poisons like flame retardants and benzene, known carcinogens). The plastic also absorbs other organic pollutants in the water like DDT (the banned pesticide), PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and others, which are known as endocrine disrupters, meaning that they alter the levels and state of hormones of the animals that ingest them. And this isn’t just about the fish turning androgynous– the humans like us that eat them can be greatly affected too. All those warnings about women eating fish during pregnancy? They’re not only because of mercury content, but also because of toxic chemicals that have been absorbed by sea life through the ingestion of plastics, which have in turn absorbed these chemicals.
One of the animals most greatly affected is the Albatross, which is severely threatened by our current consumptive habits. Specifically, the Black Footed Albatross and Laysan Albatross, who make their home on isolated tropical islands in the North Pacific Gyre, are currently considered an endangered species. Not only does long line fishing accidentally catch them, but they are also prone to eating the colorful pieces of floating plastic that resemble food in the garbage patch. The plastic causes all sorts of havoc in their stomachs, and leaves them full with less room for real food. Parents of albatross chicks bring these plastic bits resembling food back to their hungry chicks, whose stomachs fill up too quickly with poisons and in-digestible materials. Most don’t survive after a few months on this diet.
Chris Jordan, a photographer that deals with ideas surrounding America’s vast consumption habits and its resulting consequences, took a trip out to the Pacific Gyre and Garbage patch and found a gut wrenching subject for a new body of work; the stomach of baby albatross chicks. What he found was truly shocking and horrific, even unbelievable. But believe it. This is photography in the classical sense in that he is photographing what already exists in front of him without additional creation or manipulation.
“These photographs of albatross chicks were made on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific. The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.”
“To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world’s most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.”
The images are straightforward in their approach, photographed from a similar vantage point and distance, leaving the viewer with nowhere to go but facing the reality of what he’s setting in front of them. Various states of death and decay are portrayed, from some birds that seem fairly in tact, like their death might have occurred just a few days ago, to others that are merely a pile of bones. However, it becomes clear right away the message and purpose of the photographs. Chris is clearly highlighting the contents of these baby chics’ stomachs– plastic. The closer and longer you look, the more you can identify. Fishing line is prevalent, as are hundreds of bottle caps, can openers, cigarette lighters, stuff you wouldn’t imagine. If humans ate these things on a daily basis we would suffer a great deal. Now imagine a baby bird, a fraction of our size, eating the same thing. Eating our garbage, which it mistakes as food.
Why are we using a material that is designed to last forever to make products that are to be used for only a few seconds and then thrown out?
There is desperation apparent in these pictures. It is the result of the death and decay in the photographs, but also in the feelings of disgust and horror the viewer is experiencing. Chris is showing us the direct result of our habits. He is making the clear connection between society’s consumptive and wasteful habits and the consequences of that. He is showing us that our garbage doesn’t just disappear at night never to be thought of again. That is has dire consequences, and not just for an animal thousands of miles away, but also closer to home, in the food that we eat and the ocean in which we swim. We have altered the composition of the ocean forever. Now, every sample of water or sand from anywhere in the world, contains plastic. Is this the world we want to leave for our children and our grandchildren?
The critical problem in this case is our perception and use of plastic. We produce plastic to last forever, but design it for a throwaway society. Hence, we fundamentally need to challenge the way we design plastic products, and transform human industry through ecologically intelligent design.
How much plastic is in the Pacific Garbage Patch?
Some estimate the amount of garbage in the Pacific Ocean to be double the size of the state of Texas. Other scientists and researchers have estimates on the size of the surface patch. The trash vortex may be as large as the continental United States, and every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic, and that plastic constitutes about 90 percent of all trash floating in the world’s oceans.
The harsh reality is the Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only trash vortex out there. There are five major trash gyres located in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. These gyres represent what the human race is doing to our planet on a global scale.
Can we clean it up?
Unfortunately, this is plastic’s biggest issue. Disposable plastics such as bottled water, packaging, grocery bags, single serving containers, etc. have not been replaced by biodegradable versions. Plastic does not biodegrade, it just photo degrades, meaning that it breaks down visually until it becomes so small and invisible while still maintaining its toxic molecular structure that it makes its way into the food source of the smallest of aquatic organisms– plankton. The key to life in the oceans! Plankton is the most abundant life form on earth, and now in the plastic gyre, it is found only one to each seven pieces of floating plastic.
Sea garbage is a major threat. It smothers coral reefs and harms many species, including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.
Everything from fish nets to bottle caps, from the tiny pellets of plastic that are in your exfoliating face soap to old toys end up floating in the sea. Many research teams have sailed out to the middle of the trash vortex to estimate the scale of the cleanup. Unfortunately, there’s no practical way to do anything about them.
Some of the factors getting in the way of clean up includes: the areas of the trash gyres are massive in scale. The plastic is in various states of break down and some pieces are too tiny to collect; the ocean is deep and the plastic is floating from the surface all the way down to the murky bottom; the amount of fuel it would take to get ships out there to capture the plastic would emit so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the pros of a clean up are greatly reduced by the cons; the types of plastics are mixed so recycling them into anything usable would be difficult if not impossible.
Why should we care?
Many sea animals are being killed as a result of this man-made floating garbage pile. Many animals feed in this area and ingest poisons contained in the items within. Additionally by eating indigestible bits of plastic, which remain in the animal’s stomach, they slowly starve to death because they eventually can no longer consume and digest the food they need.
Cigarette butts, for example are a major cause of ocean debris.
- Americans buy an estimated 29.8 billion plastic water bottles every year.
- Nearly eight out of every 10 bottles will end up in a landfill.
- It is estimated that the production of plastics accounts for 4 percent of the energy consumption in the U.S.
- HDPE and PET bottles showed the highest recycling rates of any plastic bottles types, at 27.1 and 23.1 percent, respectively.
- Less than one percent of all plastics are recycled. Therefore, almost all plastics are incinerated or end up in a landfill.
- Recycling a single plastic bottle can conserve enough energy to light a 60-watt light bulb for up to six hours.
On a more human level jellyfish are eating toxic plastics. These are then eaten by fish, which then enter the human food chain. Indeed we are then eating the toxins absorbed into their bodies, things like PCB’s and DDT.
What can we do to stop it from getting worse?
Problems originate because no nation wants to take responsibility, as many of the items floating in the garbage patch have no traceable origins. Nonetheless some groups are looking to take action. Project Kaisei, for example is a California, and Hong Kong, based non-profit organization who want to look at cleaning up the problem and recycling some of the waste. On a 1000 mile trip from California to the edge of the garbage patch in August 2009 they noted that the Garbage patch was at least 1700 miles wide. They noted that on the surface things mostly looked fine, but upon setting nets to retrieve suspended particles they found the most garbage was under water at shallow depths. Another trip is planned for the summer of 2010. I encourage you to visit their site and have included a link to it below, there is a place you can make donations.
We need to stop manufacturing plastic and return to using sensible sources such as glass, and metal.
What can you do?
• Volunteer for a beach or river cleanup efforts.
• Put trash in a secure, lidded receptacle – most marine debris starts out on land.
• Properly recycle everything you can in your area.
• When boating, bring your trash back to shore, and ask your marina to handle waste properly.
• Less is more: Don’t buy stuff you don’t need, and choose items that use less packaging.
• Inform and inspire your friends and co-workers to help stop marine debris at the source.
• Bring your own containers instead of using disposable and reused bags whenever you shop.
• Write to companies or visit local businesses and encourage them to reuse, recycle, and generate less packaging.
• Put cigarette butts in ashtrays, not on streets, sidewalks, or beaches. Better yet, get healthy – stop smoking!
• Tell Congress it’s time to stop trashing our ocean. Take action now and send an email to your representative!
Because of the abundance of debris, and the constant accumulation of more trash, cleaning up the waters is becoming a near impossible task. The best way to start is to prevent the further build up of pollution in our oceans. The next time you’re at the beach or by a river, be mindful of the garbage left and dispose of trash properly. Save money by investing in a re-usable water bottle!
It is easy to forget that minor decisions we make create a great impact on this earth that we live in and that the damage eventually cycles back to harm our health as well. The food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink is all impacted by the environment and what we dump in it.
Support the use of renewable resources such as bamboo, which can be re-grown, re-cycled and re-used for multiple purposes. For your next purchase, whether it’s a desk, a new computer, or even a book or CD, pay attention to how much packaging is involved in your purchase and try to recycle. Support stores and companies that make conscious decisions to be green.
It’s an uphill battle, but we have to start somewhere so that future generations can enjoy this planet.