Curiously, it is not close to the coast that we find larger quantities of plastic waste, but in the middle of the sea in what is called an oceanic gyre. In this area formed by a giant winding current, wind sand currents are low. Waste that comes here does not leave. It accumulates over time to form plates in which one can find hundreds of thousands of waste per square kilometer. Numerical simulations indicate that the waste could thus remain trapped from 10 to 100 years.
Plastics make up 90% of the waste floating in the oceans. The United Nations Environment Program stated in June 2006 that they found an average 18,500 pieces of plastic per square kilometer of ocean to a depth of about 30 meters. In some places, the amount of plastic was six times that of plankton, which is the first vital link to life in the oceans since it is at the beginning of the food chain.
To date, two waste patches were discovered: the first one in the Pacific Ocean and the second one in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is in a subtropical gyre of the North Pacific area, also known as the “plastic soup” or “Eighth Continent” or “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. It was discovered in 1997 by the American oceanographer Charles Moore during a yachting competition. To describe his discovery to the world, Moore said “There were shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see. Here I was in the middle of the ocean, and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic.” Given the fact that the sea of waste is translucent and lies just beneath the surface of the water, it is not detectable on photographs taken by satellites; it is only visible from the bridge of boats.
On measurements made in 2001 and in 2007, the mass of plastic particles was six times the mass of zooplankton. Charles Moore indicates that the debris from the east coast of Asia are derived in less than a year, and those from the west coast of America are derived in five years.
Last year, the American Sea Education Association found a comparable strength in the Atlantic Ocean, about 1000 km from US shores, in the Sargasso Sea. For twenty-two years, researchers and students in Oceanography of Sea Education went to draw their fine mesh nets – more than 6000 times – in the waters of the Atlantic between Canada and the Caribbean Islands. In one particular area, which is larger than France, plastic waste is concentrated at a rate of 200,000 fragments per square kilometer to a depth of ten meters.
As the circling currents and winds are low, this plastic soup does not disperse. Plastic objects become a major problem in the sea because they last; but not as boxes, bottles, or bags. Under the action of waves, sun and abrasion, they crumble into ever smaller pieces. And the consequences for wildlife are disastrous.
According to Kara Lavender, an oceanographer from the Sea Education Association, “the impacts on the marine environment remain unknown. But we know that many marine animals eat the plastic and that has an adverse effect on birds in particular.”
However, for the first time a study presented last Friday by Algalita Marine Research Foundation and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project underlines the troubling effect floating litter is having on marine life. According to this study, more than a third of the fish collected during an expedition that took place in 2008 off the California coast had plastic in their stomachs. One knows that marine debris is hazardous to marine life. Plastics have a lifetime average over five hundred years. Over time, they fall apart without their molecular structure changing one iota. Often the broken-down plastic appears as food to the animals. These plastics are impossible to digest and they accumulate in the stomachs of fish, jellyfish and sea birds.
At the scale of the earth, Greenpeace believes that about 1 million birds and 100,000 marine mammals die every year from ingesting marine debris. In total, more than 267 marine species are affected by this marine pollution.
Photographer Chris Jordan, in a series of photographs entitled “Midway: Message from the Gyre” highlighted the disastrous effects of plastic waste on the albatross.
It is the same for turtles, which suffer enormously of marine pollution, especially plastic waste. According to scientists, who published their work in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, turtles are unable to regurgitate the plastic they swallow. This reduces the efficiency of their digestion of real food, increases energy expenditure and sometimes causes the animals to starve.
“What we’re seeing is the entire food web being contaminated by plastic,” said Charles Moore, the founder of Algalita and author of the study published last week. The ripple effects can spread through the food chain and affect humans. Indeed, the pieces of plastic, like sponges, concentrate pollutants. This, absorbed by fish, may well go back to our plates!
Moore estimates that 80% of marine waste comes from land sources, and the rest comes from ships. As the NOAA Marine Debris Program said, marine debris is a problem we can solve together with small actions. For instance, the use of green technology, reuse, recycling and biodegradable products or products made with bioplastic resins like Cereplast. Sustainable packaging is a green initiative that protects the environment; think about it the next time you go to the supermarket! Moreover, do not hesitate to get involved: many associations are cleaning up the ocean and trying to reduce the size of the ocean garbage patches. This is particularly the case of Project Kaisei whose aim is to capture the plastic vortex.
Surprising project: a Dutch company named Rotterdam WHIM Architectur offers to transform the huge slab of plastic into a Hawaii-sized island made entirely out of plastic waste. This project for a plastic island in the Pacific, entitled Recycled Island, says it will clean up the oceans, create a new land, and construct a sustainable habitat. This provocative garbage island project, however shocking it may seem, is just another way to draw attention to the plastic gyre. Who knows, maybe some people may want to live on this new island: who’s first?