Have you ever heard of the Garbage Pail Kids? Fantastic collection of sticker cards from the 80s, I used a few packs of them to decorate a skateboard I made, not the point, though. What reminds me of them now is this phenomenon that’s travelling up, down, and around the eastern seaboard. If the Cabbage Patch Kids were born on a quaint little cabbage farm, this mass floating in the Pacific is what spawned the GPKs, pulling from the blackest depths of bad trash collection. What I speak of is...
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or The Pacific Trash Vortex.
Out in the ocean, there is a monstrous patch of garbage floating through the open waters, with its area reaching an estimate 270,000 square miles. The measurements continue to fluctuate as one organization after another surveys the damage on their own, but that’s roughly the size of Texas! Pieces of detritus, ranging in size from abandoned fishing nets to those tiny little microbeads used in abrasive cleaners and exfoliants float, bob, and swim at and just beneath the surface. The debris comes from a variety of spots all around the world, places like marinas, ports, rivers, harbors, docks, and even storm drains.
As the materials sail out from their place of origin, they are caught up in the natural mass currents of the ocean known as gyres. If you don’t know what that is, Wikipedia has a fantastic definition: “An ocean gyre is a large system of circular ocean currents formed by global wind patterns and forces created by Earth’s rotation.” The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or GP^2, gets its name from its location and its main method of movement, the North Pacific Gyre. Due to these currents, the GP^2 stays in a specific area usually outside of close contact with the coasts, keeping it in the horse latitudes. However, the gyres of the oceans work together in something known as the “ocean conveyor belt,” a mechanism that allows the circulation of ocean water around the planet. Over time, the water from different parts of the world mix together, carrying all of those nasty things that get thrown out or wash out into the sea and are never seen again: those rings around six-packs, the beads in your facewash, or your high school rap career. Except, they are seen again by marine life. Sea turtles, fish, neustons (organisms that live on or near the surface of water), and birds are affected directly by the debris or the chemicals that seep off of the poorly disposed items.
Let’s talk a little chemistry for a second. A lot of the trash that resides in this putrid patch is made of plastic. Very cheap, very toxic plastic. Usually, when we humans use these objects, we’re not keeping them out in the sun with water and air constantly flowing over them. The combination of these two forces leads to photo-degradation, or the alteration of a material by light. Bits and bits and even smaller bits break off of a larger plastic object, like an inflatable beach ball, but still retain their strength and bonds as a polymer. These very tiny bits of plastic get into all forms of life, assisting the development of some cancers and blocking vessels and pathways in the organisms internal systems. One tiny molecule wouldn’t be much of a problem, but due to the epidemic-like scale of mass pollution, there’s an increasing amount of these toxins in the food of marine life. If you don’t believe me, believe the readings taken by marine biologists. When studying the life present on the island of Midway, scientists took an interest in the ingestion of plastic by the Laysan albatross. Of the 1.5 million birds that inhabit that island, nearly all of those in the sample groups were found to have plastic in their digestive system that was gumming up their everyday, normal function. Of the 20 tons of plastic that wash up on the Midway beaches, 5 of those tons are fed to albatross chicks due to contamination of the ocean life they feed on. And some of that aquatic life is what we feed on. We’re throwing things out, improperly disposing of them, so we can go to the store or a fancy restaurant to pay some exorbitant price for a salmon filet that will make us sick, block our insides, or give us cancer. This is an example of horrible self-preservation, among other things, and we need to find a way to clean up our mess.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the net or naval fleet large enough to pick up all this trash at once. We don’t have a Texas-sized sieve that we can scoop the Pacific Ocean into to undo what’s been done over so many years. “What about the Seabin? You know, that magic ocean trash bucket that my friends keep sharing on Facebook? We could get a bunch of those!” Do you have the resources for a million Seabins? Ten million Seabins, maybe? Greenpeace probably gets headlines on this mess every morning, and it probably makes them want to crawl back into bed.
The reality of the situation is that there is no easy way out. Global pollution over decades has contributed to this festering wound that Mother Nature cannot heal on her own, and the only people who can help are everyday people like ourselves. But can you believe that not everyone wants to be a garbage man? Asides from going out on ships and collecting all of this free-floating filth, the best we can hope to do is to carefully dispose of our trash in the proper receptacles, recycle whatever we can whenever we can, and spread awareness of this stinking, fermenting reality.