Sea of Debris

In 2005, on an atoll deep in the Pacific Ocean, a researcher found a small fragment of plastic from a WWII era plane inside the stomach of a dead Albatross. For decades the fragment bobbed in ocean currents and tumbled about on desolate beaches. Eventually a bird mistook it for food. At this moment millions of tons of trash spoil the world’s oceans. The accumulation between California and Hawaii alone is so immense it’s been given a name: The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s purportedly the single largest dump on the planet. And it continues to grow.

Beginning about 500 nautical miles off the coast of California, encircled by several major oceanic currents, the water swirls in a massive slow-moving eddy called the North Pacific subtropical gyre. A natural phenomenon turn pollution trap where debris circulates for decades and covers hundreds of thousands of square miles. Litter blown offshore and carried in river run off is drawn here by the surrounding currents. And much of it is plastic. It’s forever.

The environmental impact is incalculable. Millions of seabirds, mammals, fish, and other creatures perish from ingesting bits of debris or getting tangled in it. Yet, the plastic bottles, cigarette lighters, or even odd billiard ball are merely the most visible traces. Plastic breaks down through a process of photo degradation. It eventually becomes dust, but never disappears. A pioneer in research on the matter from Long Beach, CA, Charles Moore first began studying the problem ten years ago. A blog entry from his expedition earlier this year describes “an endless stream of delicate, white snowflakes, like plastic powder coating the ocean’s surface.” The result is a poisonous mix of seawater with plastic outnumbering plankton in some areas.

Flotsam from the Garbage Patch occasionally inundates atolls within the recently created Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument northwest of Hawaii. Deposits several feet high form along certain shorelines. Being that the nature reserve is protected by our nation’s strongest environmental laws; the federal government has been compelled to act. However, without a concerted multi-national effort and grassroots support, it will prove hard to remedy what has grown into a global blight of epic proportions.

Originally published in print in DEEP Magazine in September 2008.

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