The Plague of Pacific Plastic

by Matt Ball on February 25, 2009

I’ve posted before about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and once you’re aware of it, it’s something that’s hard to forget. Now, I’ve learned of the research work of Capt. Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the man that discovered this mess. He’s been quantifying the size and impact of plastic garbage in the ocean ever since his discovery, and has become an activist to try and curtail its growth.

He recently gave a talk at the TED Conference regarding his disturbing findings. Unfortunately, he’s not that optimistic about our ability to clean up the ocean.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

fontinalis February 25, 2009 at 2:27 pm

With regard to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, I think a little clarification might be required. All sorts of plastics certainly enter our waterways and oceans, but the suggestion that there are large VISIBLE islands of the stuff is simply impossible. The length of time required for debris to float to the supposed location of the collection vortex (as it sometimes called) is long enough for saltwater to breakdown even the heartiest of plastics. The pollution of our oceans is a legitimate concern, and there are indeed concentrations of microscopic bits of plastic in the central Pacific, but the notion of an actual floating garbage patch on any size is a myth. Let’s all try to keep sensationalism from getting in the way of real stewardship concerns.

Matt Ball February 25, 2009 at 2:37 pm

If you’re interested in more visual and scientific proof, be sure to read the excellent five-part series by the LA Times (http://is.gd/kSdz). You need only view the beaches of Hawaii or the video of ocean studies to see that this detritus doesn’t break down that quickly.

fontinalis February 26, 2009 at 7:26 am

Matt Ball,

I am certainly not debating the existence of extensive pollution (specifically plastic pollution) in the oceans; rather, I maintain that there is no Great Pacific Garbage Patch as popularly conceived. All of the references you find on the issue, including both the foundation website of the guy giving the TED talk and the link you provide, shows solid debris in quantity ONLY on beaches. There are unquestionably large quantities of solid plastic debris off the coasts of Asia, the United States, and many Pacific Islands, but there is no evidence to suggest that they originated any place other than on those respective coasts. All I’m saying is that Hawaiian beaches covered with VISIBLE trash are covered with Hawaiian trash that has not had time to break down.

Solid debris, while an eyesore and a hazard to wildlife, is not as significant a concern as the neuston plastic (microscopic floating particles) that IS concentrating in areas of the Pacific and which has implications for food chain health. That’s the real problem, not some fictitious gigantic floating island of waste coming from any continental mainland. Or if that is a real phenomenon, no one, including the LA Times article you sight, saw fit to actually photograph it.

Matt Ball February 26, 2009 at 8:41 am

I suggest a deeper look at the work of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, and specifically their sample analysis from ’07-’08. Their month-long research mission is summarized in this good article (http://www.flypmedia.com/issues/03/#5/1).

Seaphoto April 13, 2009 at 8:03 pm

Ok, enough with the speculation of the island’s existence. Who is trying to solve the problem and how can one be part of the solution?

Matt Ball April 13, 2009 at 8:21 pm

The Algalita Marine Research Foundation is active in assessing the problem and working toward restoration. You can support their efforts here: http://www.algalita.org/other-donations.html

Stephen Ernest Smith December 7, 2009 at 10:08 am

I’m all against pollution but I doubt that the Pacific Patch “the size of Texas” exists. I’ve never seen a photo taken from the air of it — or any photos of it that would show it to be scores of miles across. I’ve seen “close-ups” but those don’t tell the tale.

What are the coordinates? Why can’t I find it on Google Earth? Why are there no photos? My inescapable conclusion is that although there IS a problem no such huge Garbage Vortex exists.

Matt Ball December 9, 2009 at 4:32 pm

A lot of work is being done to assess the problem through scientific research trips that sample the plastic and its impact. Plastic the size of a garbage bag wouldn’t show up in a satellite image. The amount of garbage washing onto Hawaiian beaches is one telltale sign that the problem is big and getting bigger. We won’t easily combat the existing issues because of the vast size, but we can however change our habits to make sure that it doesn’t get worse.

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