Did you know that there is a pile of garbage about the size of Texas floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Yea… I didn’t until recently. However, if you just booted up Google Earth and are trying to find it, you won’t. The reason for this lies mainly in the description: many online articles describe this phenomena as a “floating island” of garbage, others claim that it is at least “twice the size of Texas.” While these descriptors aren’t flat-out deceptive, they present a visual that is not entirely accurate. First off, the mass of garbage, which is primarily comprised of plastic, is not floating in the sense that a boat does: instead, it is suspended in the ocean much like those little exfoliating beads in bottles of boutique hand soap. This means that the garbage extends from the surface of the water all the way down to the bottom… as a suspension of plastic and other nasty things. Second, because of its three dimensional nature and the fact that it is constantly shifting location, it is difficult to ascertain how large it actually is.
Despite these uncertainties, what is known is that the garbage is
located in an ocean current vortex known as the North Pacific Gyre,
which acts as a natural “trap” for refuse in the ocean. Natural
materials such as driftwood can get trapped in there, but they
biodegrade harmlessly. The garbage, on the other hand, is mainly
comprised of non-biodegradable plastic that contains persistent organic
pollutants (POPs). Even more insidious is this: POPs are capable of
long-term transport, where they persist in the environment and have
been shown to bioaccumulate in human and animal tissue. As this occurs,
biomagnification of the POPs can result in irreversible damage to both
human health and the environment.
So what can be done about this growing problem? First off, we need to
stop the problem at its source by limiting the usage of
non-biodegradable plastics. A large percentage of the trash in the gyre
is comprised of plastic shopping bags, which can easily be replaced by
environmentally friendly shopping bags. Recycling anything you use that
is made of plastic is another great way to keep this “floating garbage
island” from expanding. We all must think critically about our
consumption of goods and also the way we choose to discard them.
Second, a geographic understanding of earth systems and processes
including ocean currents, thermodynamics, and human-environment
interactions is crucial to determine exactly how the garbage is ending
up in the gyre and what we can do to stop it. Finally, because of the
large amounts of pollutants already in the ocean, research must be done
to better understand the short and long-term effects of POPs on
wildlife, humans and the environment, so that we may mitigate the
Do you have any additional suggestions of actions individuals or governments should take?
Update: I just found this video of Captain Charles Moore, of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation presenting his talk at the TED conference. Capt. Moore’s research has been a primary source of much information on the topic of plastics in the ocean.
For more information please check out the following links:
Greenpeace: Trash Vortex
- This site is very informative and also has a neat animation that
shows the trip garbage makes as it travels from coastlines to the North
VBStv: Toxic Garbage Island
- This is a great documentary about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
that I encourage you to watch. However, it contains vulgar language, so
please be aware that it may not be suitable for all viewers.
Cameron for My Wonderful World