…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Giant ‘Islands’ of Garbage Floating in the Ocean, With No Fix in Sight
Categories: Commentary, Environment

by Meg White

Getting the attention of the daytime TV queen Oprah is the dream scenario for every cause. So after the island of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean made its debut on Oprah’s Earth Day episode, one would think we’d already have an army of celebrities out in their yachts, scooping up garbage.

But just like the Godzilla movies, Mothra was always more popular a villain than his sea monster sis Ebirah.

It’s been billed as the world’s largest landfill, characterized as a three million-ton garbage dump.

To be precise, this mass is not really an island, per se. The garbage itself floats just beneath the surface in a decaying soup that extends many feet below the surface in places. The mass is held together by oceanic currents called gyres. Also known as a trash vortex, this mass of mostly plastic doesn’t discriminate. Large pieces mingle in a muck of tiny plastic bits broken down by the sun in a process called photo-degeneration.

To narrow the definition even further, it’s not even an it: There may be as many as six of these trash-filled gyres swirling in our oceans. Greenpeace has a fascinating interactive animation showing how coastal garbage interacts with oceanic gyres.

The two best-known gathering points of oceanic trash are the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches, collectively known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Floating on either side of Hawaii, the two patches are actually connected by the Subtropical Convergence Zone, or “trash superhighway,” as it’s described by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

This “island” is where flotsam and jetsam meet. An estimated four-fifths of the oceanic debris comes from land sources: litter that is swept by rain or wind from streets as far inland as Iowa to tributaries and beaches. The remainder comes from garbage accidentally lost or deliberately dumped from boats and ship decks.

The dangers of these garbage patches are great in both quantity and quality. Marine animals of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, mistake the plastic for food. Some organisms become entangled in the mass and die.

The patches also concentrate the most toxic part of plastic trash — known as persistent organic pollutants, or POPs — like a sponge, making the garbage itself even more harmful. The island also allows for the spread of invasive species by facilitating “oceanic hitchhikers” that travel from one habitat to another with unprecedented ease.

The remote location of these garbage patches, combined with the constantly-shifting nature of the ocean in general and the gyres specifically, makes determining the size of the garbage patches difficult. Estimates range wildly, from the size of Texas to the size of the continental United States.

Obviously, to combat this problem we need to reduce our plastic use and stop littering. We need to recycle more. This problem needs to be headed off at the source, or else we’ll just keep feeding this man-made sea monster. Greenpeace has an excellent, practical list of what ordinary people can do to help stem the tide of this massive problem.

That said, we’ve been ditching plastic in the natural environment for the last 50 years, and our planet is already overflowing with toxicity. Plastic takes hundreds, sometimes thousands of years to break down. You do the math; I think you’ll conclude that we need to do something now about the damage done.

As for the trash that’s already there, many throw their hands in the air nihilistically. “There’s just too much, and the ocean is just too big,” said one expert about the possibility of cleaning up the garbage patches.

I’d posit that the garbage patch problem is too large to allow its continued existence, and the only part its remoteness plays is allowing nations to disavow responsibility by noting international waters statutes. Hell, we’re having a hard enough political fight with carbon caps and climate treaties. But we are pursuing them nonetheless. If the political will is there to fight the smoggy Mothra on a global scale, why not soggy Ebirah?

On the home front, NOAA began looking into the possibility of a U.S. attack on Garbage Island a few years ago. According to their Web site, they’ve been contacted by several companies interested in helping out. They urge caution however, as a great deal of marine life could be destroyed in the process. The agency, in concert with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, does offer grants and other funding opportunities to those with ideas of how to clean up our oceans and local waterways in general.

There are already international efforts underway to remove plastic from the world’s oceans. A group in Italy has begun paying fishermen in the Mediterranean (who pull trash out of the sea accidentally in the course of their work, but throw it back overboard as they have no monetary incentive to keep it) to bring back plastic from their expeditions. The group, called Green Ocean, later recycles the plastic. They are working with more than 60 universities and trying to get the attention of the E.U.’s environmental commission.

With the large amount of shipping vessels being docked (at a great price to ship owners and their crews) due to lowered productivity worldwide, now is perhaps the best time to pull together a plan to attack the garbage patch, mirroring what is already being done in Italy.

This is where multinational companies, many of which produce the stuff that populates Trash Island, come in. Can you imagine the goodwill a company like Google could garner by taking on this problem?

I’m not saying it has to be Google. But parts of the planning and execution would fit well into their portfolio, as well as their famous motto. With Google Earth diving into ocean mapping and photography, the company could give the problem a visual dimension.

In reality, it will take many companies cooperating to take on such a challenge. And there’s no shortage of global companies who could take this on. Here are a few ideas:

A.P. Moller-Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, could help haul the trash itself. After all, they boast their environmental foresight is evidenced by their development of the world’s first double-hulled tanker to reduce oil spills. They say they want “to do more than what is simply necessary to comply with legislation, recognising [sic] that individual contributions make a difference” in global environmental challenges.

There are thousands of plastic recycling companies that could benefit from this project. Perhaps Nestle, a company that has done its fair share of polluting with its water bottle empire alone, could draw attention to (and expand?) its plastic recycling efforts by participating in the capture and reuse of the garbage patch.

On the manpower front, maybe Celebrity Cruises could donate its new cruise ship (the largest in the world) to an eco-tourism venture. I’d bet that there would be more takers on a heroic trip to battle Garbage Island than you’ll find for their Mexican tours of late.

That’s where we come in. Though the patch itself is a week’s journey from the nearest port, I think it could make for an interesting vacation. Maybe you’ll meet Oprah! And hey, why not bring the children along? After all, you’re not raising them to be Garbage Patch Kids, are you?


Photo credit: NOAA Ocean Conservancy.

Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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