Environment

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AP Photo/Reed Saxon
A jar filled with water from the Eastern
Pacific Garbage Patch.

Vast Patch of Floating Plastic Waste Found in Atlantic Ocean

February 25, 2010 01:03 PM
by James Sullivan
Researchers have found the Atlantic Ocean’s equivalent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in an area southwest of Bermuda.

Zeroing in on Plastics in the Atlantic

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On Tuesday at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Portland, Ore., researchers announced finding heavy concentrations of plastic waste in the Atlantic Ocean, comparable in some areas to the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The findings are based on 22 years of samples collected by undergraduates at the Sea Education Association, who conducted 6,100 “tows” in the North Atlantic and Caribbean. Dragging fine mesh nets behind their vessels, researchers amassed 64,000 pieces of plastic, generally no larger than 1 cm across.

They found mostly low-density plastic debris from shopping bags and other consumer products, such as packaging.

Dr. Kara Lavender Law of the SEA noted that at its highest concentrations, 200,000 pieces of plastic were found per square kilometer—a figure on par with that of the Pacific’s garbage patch.

The World’s Largest Landfill

While returning from a yacht race to Hawaii in 1997, Capt. Charles Moore deviated from the standard route, heading toward an eddy in the Pacific often avoided for lack of large fish and subtle breezes. There he discovered a vast area of polluted ocean that has since been dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He recalls, “Every time I came on deck to survey the horizon, I saw a soap bottle, bottle cap or a shard of plastic waste bobbing by. Here I was in the middle of the ocean and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic.”

The garbage patch itself actually comprises two smaller garbage patches—the Western Pacific Garbage Patch and the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch. The interaction of currents in the Pacific has made the two areas perfect for the accumulation of trash. Some experts estimate the Eastern Garbage Patch as being two times the size of Texas.

A 6,000-mile current in an area north of Hawaii where warm water from the South Pacific meets cold water from the north, called the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, connects the two eddies that make up the Eastern Garbage Patch and the Western Garbage Patch. This entire region is referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

It can take several years for trash to follow ocean currents into the patch.

A Solution?

Last Year, Capt. Charles Moore delivered a compelling TED talk on the subject of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He discussed the origins of the patch and its makeup, and addressed the future.

Given the scale of the mess, he says, there is no way any nation can hope to clean it. Instead, he urges consumers to reevaluate their use of plastic, and do more to curb the problem at its source.

Background: Earlier research at Garbage Patch

In 2006, the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of the Eastern Garbage Patch helped earn the paper a Pulitzer Prize. An article by L.A. Times writer Kenneth R. Weiss describes the deadly impact of floating plastic debris on wildlife.

Approximately 200,000 of the 500,000 albatross chicks born at Midway Atoll, near the Garbage Patch, die every year, “mostly from dehydration or starvation,” Weiss reported. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s two-year study of the area revealed “that chicks that died from those causes had twice as much plastic in their stomachs as those that died for other reasons.”

The Plastiki

In March 2009, John Colapinto wrote in The New Yorker about Plastiki, a vessel constructed only from recyclable plastics, manned by adventurer David de Rothschild. The boat is set to sail across the Pacific as soon as a month from now to call attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Watch a video in which de Rothschild and his crew discuss “the building of the boat” on The New Yorker blog.

The official Web site of the Plastiki offers a closer look at the voyage and its mission.
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