Like a message in a bottle gone horribly wrong, millions upon millions of tonnes of water containers, toys, lighters, shopping bags and every other plastic article created by man are accumulating at an astonishing rate in the world's oceans, creating floating islands of inorganic flotsam hundreds of thousands of kilometers in size and drifting to shore to create literal beaches of petrochemical debris.
The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is an ocean region where several major sea currents converge bringing with them the flotsam from the Pacific Coasts of Southeast Asia, North America, Canada and Mexico. Known for centuries to navigators as 'The Doldrums', it is not place mariners usually go. But in 1997 Charles Moore, a former furniture restorer sailing across the Pacific in the 50 foot catamaran he had built himself as a retirement project, decided to turn on his engines and take a short cut across the gyre.
'It took us a week to get across and there was always some plastic thing bobbing by,' Moore told the UK newspaper The Telegraph. 'Bottle caps, toothbrushes, styrofoam cups, detergent bottles, pieces of polystyrene packaging and plastic bags. Half of it was just little chips that we couldn't identify. It wasn't a revelation so much as a gradual sinking feeling that something was terribly wrong here. Two years later I went back with a fine-mesh net, and that was the real mind-boggling discovery.'
The area is now known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Depending on your frame of reference, it is estimated to be twice the size of the state of Texas, or France. Or the size of Hudson's Bay. Or Ontario. Four times the surface area of all of the Great Lakes combined. Floating beneath the surface, to a depth of 10 meters, are millions of plastic items in various sizes and stages of deconstruction. Neustonic is the word describing material that floats on and just below the surface of a body of water. When Moore collected and calibrated the water he found that neustonic plastic outweighed organic and natural flotsam by a margin of six to one. Researchers estimate the combined weight of the plastic in this gyre is three million tones. And increasing steadily.
Charles Moore is no longer retired. Moved to action by what he witnessed, he founded The Algalita Research Foundation, which is currently back in the North Pacific updating its Garbage Patch findings. Meanwhile, further to the south, the Scripps Oceanic Institute in San Diego believes there is an even larger marine dump near Easter Island.
Where does all the plastic come from? Our navies and commercial fishing fleets deposit 639,000 plastic containers overboard everyday, but the biggest culprit is our own inability to control our appetite for cheap, disposable products. On every continent the tsunami of plastic items from littered streets, landfills and trucks and trains on their way to landfills are blown by the wind into storm drains, onto rivers and lakes and eventually out to the ocean where currents and tides drive them to these gyres of plastic soup. Overall there are an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer of the world's oceans.
The ocean is especially susceptible to plastic buildup because the cooling capacity of water retards the degradation of the trash.. Plastic does not biodegrade and no known microbe can feed on it, but it does photodegrade. What happens is that prolonged exposure to sunlight causes the polymer chains to breakdown into ever decreasing pieces.
What the plastic toys and toothbrushes eventually do break down into are millions of small plastic flecks in many colours â€“ the 'Mermaids' Tears'. Researchers have also discovered large portions of the patches are comprised of uniformly shaped spheres about 2mm in diameter. These are manufactured pellets of raw plastic resin, called nurdles, more than 100 billion kilograms of which are shipped around the world every year to factories which melt them into the familiar products we use everyday. Those nurdles that spill off the trucks while loading or unloading or lie in huge mounds outside the factories are light enough to be windborne and eventually make it into the ocean.
Nurdles are in abundance in every ocean in the world, and on every beach. Kamilo Beach in Hawaii is now comprised of more plastic particles than sand particles down a depth of one foot.
What is the effect of these nurdles and other pieces of plastic? It is not entirely known. Scientific research about marine plastic debris has just started and is underfunded. We know that larger pieces of plastic are responsible for killing millions of seabirds and 100,000 marine animals each year. We know that it is impossible for animals that have fed on tiny neustonic nutritives for eons to separate the inorganic from the organic, and plastic has been found inside zooplankton and filter feeders such as mussels. We know that nurdles attract and accumulate DDT and PCB's in the world's water. There is worry that the plastic pellets and the accumulated toxins are traveling through the food chain and ending up on our plates.
There are six major subtropical gyres in the world's oceans, with the combined area equaling a quarter of our planet's surface? Is it accelerating? Is there a way to reduce the amount of plastics that go into our oceans? Is the buildup of plastics in these gyres having a significant impact on the aquatic life around them? Or an effect on where and how lower marine animals are feeding? If so, what happens to species further up the food chain, including homo sapiens?