As the oil continues to leak into the Gulf of Mexico and projected to seep into the Atlantic, another petroleum product, plastic, consumes the Pacific. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it has been named, was predicted to exist in 1988 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) when high amounts of debris were discovered in regions governed by ocean currents and was found in 1997 by Charles J Moore.
The garbage patch is a testament to mankind’s wasteful lifestyle and throwaway culture. The massive patch is oft cited to be the size of Texas and contains many plastic objects, chemical sludge and other debris. Exact size is unknown, however, since the debris is scattered throughout the ocean floor instead of being one large mass [Source: MNN]. This is in part due to its initial formation. The garbage patch formed due to oceanic currents gathering these pollutants and its location in relatively stationary waters. The ocean currents in the North (The North Gyre) draws in waste from the North Pacific Ocean and then surface currents float these materials into the patch, trapping it in the region. Around 90% of the debris was plastic, with 80% coming from land sources and the other 20% from ships at sea [Source: About.com].
Having plastic in the ocean is a problem on various levels. The most obvious is the immediate effects on wildlife. Many birds and animals mistake floating plastic bags and six pack rings for animal parts and end up choking or accidentally feeding their young plastic pellets. Others become entangled in abandonded plastic fishing nets in an occurence called “ghost fishing”, which often leads to these animals drowning. Scientists estimate that 22 species of marine mammals are harmed or killed by plastic waste, either from ingestion, entanglement or strangulation [Source: Environment News Service]. However, the biggest consequences are far-reaching. Plastic is not biodegradable, and while the sun eventually photodegrades the plastic into smaller and smaller pieces, it only makes the problem worse. Plastic is inherently toxic and often contains chemicals like bisphenol-A and pthalates and naturally attract organic pollutants like PCB, BPA, and DDT, all linked to causing serious health and environmental problems [Source: MNN]. These microscopic particles could eventually make its way to food in our grocery stores or restaurants, though its effect on human health is currently unknown.
Despite difficulty for mapping out the patch, there have been efforts to help clean up the mess before it gets worse. In 2009 brigantine Kaisei (Japanese for Project Ocean) set sail to investigate the actual size of the patch and come up with clean-up solutions. While the majority of the particles are small and confetti-like pieces of plastic, and practically impossible to clean, the benefit of removing the rest is better than leaving it in. Still Doug Woodring, project leader of Kaisei, realizes that a simple cleanup of visible materials is simply not good enough, “The solution really lies on land. We have to treat plastics in a totally different way, and stop them ever reaching the ocean” [Source: Times Online].
Not surprisingly a second garbage patch was found in the Atlantic in April of 2010. While the unrefined crude oil spews into the Gulf of Mexico, refined petroleum pollutes the Pacific and Atlantic. Not surprisingly, much of the petroleum that we import is used to make plastic objects…nearly everything we use in our lives has some plastic component. In order to stop the garbage patch from growing and decrease our dependence on oil, plastic substitutes and better recycling methods need to be put in place, before it gets any worse.