In 1997, researcher Charles Moore discovered an enormous swamp of garbage, roughly twice the size of Texas, floating in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California. Now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it was undeniable evidence of humans’ colossal environmental impact. Its presence provoked many to change their behavior in hopes that the patch would not grow and that future patches would not be found. However, those hopes were dashed when recently a second garbage patch turned up in the Atlantic Ocean. Even worse, experts expect to find at least three more such islands of garbage in the world’s oceans.
The First Patch
The Pacific Garbage Patch, composed mostly of plastics, was discovered by Moore on a return trip from a yachting competition in Hawaii. “There were shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see,” he said. Located in the Pacific Ocean gyre, one of the world’s five major slow-rotating whirlpools, the patch is constantly in flux and can be difficult to photograph and study. On a return trip in 2009, Moore confirmed the patch’s rapid growth. The samples he took last year revealed twice as much debris as samples from his initial trip. This increase of garbage led to his suspicions of additional patches lying all around the world.
The New Patch
After he found the Pacific Patch, Moore established the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to study marine pollution and search for new patches. Collaborating with the 5 Gyres group, Moore plans to visit every gyre in the world. They went first to the Atlantic Ocean gyre, where they discovered the second patch. While researchers are still determining the new patch’s size, refuse has so far been found between 22 and 38 degrees north latitude, or roughly the span between Cuba and Washington, DC. Pictures from the voyage illustrating the soup-like consistency of the patch are available on Huffington Post.
More Patches Suspected
One year from now, researchers will have explored all five major gyres, which they presume will each contain a patch. Only a couple of weeks ago, the team came back from the Indian Ocean gyre and have yet to elaborate upon their findings. However, they confirmed that they found, no surprise, large quantities of floating garbage.
The Problem With Patches
Not only do the patches recall humans’ drastic consumption patterns, but both their presence and the chemicals they will release in years to come pose major threats to wildlife, our water supply and our health. Largely composed of tiny plastic bits, the garbage may be consumed by animals that have difficulty distinguishing the trash pieces from food. Even large visible pieces of plastic are being found by the score in the bellies of animals in the wild, as illustrated in the Chris Jordan photo of a decomposing sea bird accompanying this piece.
The materials, which are indigestible and full of chemicals, lead to animals’ illness and death upon consumption. And these tiny bits of chemical-laden plastic can appear in the fish we eat, in the animals we eat that consume fish, in our drinking water and eventually in us.
Along with its consumption by animals, plastic garbage is a non-biodegradable material that can release harmful chemicals during its breakdown process. As 5 Gyres points out, plastics pollution has become so severe that 44% of all seabird species, 22% of Cetaceans, all sea turtle species and a growing list of fish species have been documented with plastic in or around their bodies. With the rapid growth of our waste, humans will soon be hard-pressed to find clean beaches, clean water or even a clean place to call home.
What We Can Do
While opportunities to help clean up the garbage abound, preventing the expansion of these patches ultimately comes down to reducing individual consumption. Recycling plastics, using stainless-steel water bottles, reusable bags and glass food containers instead of plastic ones are simple ways to aid the movement. Also request that local businesses and schools reduce or eliminate plastic bags.
By limiting our waste and choosing to buy only what we need and only items that will last, we can minimize both our carbon and plastic footprints—and curb the growth of these patches. If we reduce, reuse and recycle—importantly, in that order—we can be successful. Who knows? One day, the ships of Algalita and other research foundations might be relegated to dry dock once they determine no new patches are forming and the current ones have been cleaned up.
Profile of Chinese Water Activist, Ma Jun
Tapping Back into the Source: The Death of Bottled Water
The Wall Street Journal, “How Big Is That Widening Gyre of Floating Plastic?”
Deep Ocean Reverence: An Interview with Wallace 'J.' Nichols