The Great Plastic Island in the Pacific

On September 29, 2010, in Los Angeles, by Nathan

J. Basil Dannebohm is a Planeteer in Denver, Colorado

If you’ve ever seen the BBC’s documentary: “The Blue Planet Seas of Life,” you know that our planet’s oceans are some of the most gorgeous and mysterious of Mother Nature’s wonders. The deeper you dive, the more elusive and almost prehistoric-like the creatures. In the ocean’s more shallow area’s one can find sea turtles, orca whales, dolphins, sharks … and a mass of plastic and garbage twice the size of Texas.

You read that correctly, there is a massive garbage dump double the size of the second largest of the United States. The area comprises nearly 8.1% of the Pacific Ocean and contains somewhere around 100 million tons of debris, mostly plastic.

So now that you’ve picked your jaw up off of the ground, you’re next question is probably “how did all that garbage manage to make its way into the ocean and where exactly is it?”

While I do not have the assistance of Bill Nye the Science Guy, I do have Wikipedia, so I am able to break it down for you in some scientific terms …

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” as it is more commonly known is located in the central North Pacific Ocean located roughly between 135° to 155°W and 35° to 42°N.

Now that we’ve answered the where, let’s examine the how.

According to our good friends at Wikipedia: “The rotational pattern created by the North Pacific Gyre draws in waste material from across the North Pacific Ocean, including the coastal waters off North America and Japan. As material is captured in the currents, wind-driven surface currents gradually move floating debris toward the center, trapping it in the region.”

Oceanographer Charles Moore believes that 80% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is from land-based sources while only 20% of the mass comes from sea vessels. Moore further believes that ocean currents carry the debris from North America’s west coast to the patch in a year or less.

So how does all of this affect our ecosystem (as if you really have to ask) …

Well, aside from being a mass of waste floating around the ocean, over time the sun starts to break down the plastic into tiny particles. These small pieces of plastic resemble the plankton that is a vital food source for a wide variety of marine life. The sea creatures consume the plastic and either die or suffer from poisoning effects.

If the thought of marine life being jeopardized doesn’t tug at a heart string, think of the long term results of this island of plastic. Eventually it will catch up with humans as well. Nature has a delicate balance, when it’s interfered with; it’s only a matter of time before the damage becomes apparent … usually it’s too late.

Before I conclude today’s grim look at the deep blue sea, allow me to revisit the question of how this garbage patch originated.

Sure, we’ve examined how the patch managed to form scientifically, but the greater issue at hand is not ocean currents, the greater cause is you and me.

Now I realize that is a rather tough pill to swallow but sometimes the truth hurts. Think about how much plastic you use in the average week. When you get groceries, have you purchased those canvas tote bags or do you still resort to plastic sacks? Each time you go to the vending machine and purchase your favorite soft drink, do you recycle the bottle or simply toss it in your garbage can conveniently located in your cubicle? How about all that plastic that is used to package materials? You see … now that massive garbage patch is starting to seem just a little closer to home than the northern Pacific.

I know what you’re thinking … it’s impossible to change society, and to some degree, you are absolutely right. Certainly we cannot expect the beverage companies to stop using plastic bottles or grocery stores to get rid of plastic sacks. However, each of us can do a couple of very important things … recycle … and to quote our old friend, Woodsy the Owl, “give a hoot, don’t pollute.”

The power is YOURS to keep our land green … and our oceans blue.

J. Basil Dannebohm is a member of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs and the National Writers Union. He resides in Colorado.