May 2, 2008
A mass of plastic debris twice the size of Texas is still growing in the Pacific Ocean, fueled primarily by plastic trash generated on the land. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch consists of 3.5 million tons of trash, 80 percent of it plastic, floating in a rarely-traveled portion of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and San Francisco.
“With the winds blowing in and the currents in the gyre going circular, it’s the perfect environment for trapping,” said Marcus Eriksen, director of research and education at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, Calif. “There’s nothing we can do about it now, except do no more harm.”
According to Chris Parry, public education program manager for the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco, the garbage patch has been growing tenfold every decade since the 1950s. This corresponds with an equivalent increase in worldwide ocean debris.
The debris is highly dangerous to ocean life. Birds and marine animals may injure themselves by swallowing hard, indigestible shards of plastic. Animals like sea turtles, which mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, may also eat plastic that is less immediately harmful but just as fatal in the long term.
“These animals die because the plastic eventually fills their stomachs,” said Warner Chabot, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy. “It doesn’t pass, and they literally starve to death.”
Plastic, which is synthesized from petroleum, can persist for decades before beginning to degrade, making it nearly impossible to get rid of once it is produced.
Parry and Chabot agree that the best way to keep the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from growing is to reduce production of plastic waste and use fewer plastic products at the consumer level as well.
“What we can do is ban plastic fast food packaging,” Chabot said, “or require the substitution of biodegradable materials, increase recycling programs and improve enforcement of litter laws.”
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