Ships Set Sail to Examine the Vast Patch of Plastic in the Pacific Ocean

By Allison Bond | August 3, 2009 3:38 pm

plasticScientists will venture this summer to the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch–a blob of discarded plastic twice the size of Texas that’s floating in the Pacific Ocean–in an extensive effort to assess just how detrimental the patch is to the marine ecosystem.

Two boats push off this month to examine and analyze the patch of plastic; one left from San Diego yesterday, the other is set to leave from San Francisco tomorrow. The expeditions will last four weeks and will cost $1.1 million. Researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego will conduct a wide range of experiments on the debris’ impact on phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish, whales, birds, salts and fouling communities – groups of organisms that live on the debris. They will spend 10 days traveling to and from the remote region [San Diego Union-Tribune]. Once the researchers are back on dry land, it will take months to fully analyze the samples collected during the voyage.

The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch is more than just a cloak of plastic floating on the surface of the ocean. Instead, scientists believe 70 percent of the patch’s plastic is beneath the water, disintegrating into minute pieces. The plastic and toxins it attracts have become a part of the Pacific Ocean’s ecosystem, killing everything from fish to birds to sea turtles [San Diego Union-Tribune]. The floating dump was created when ocean currents swept millions of tons of plastic to a section of the ocean located between Hawaii and California. As much as 10 percent of the 260 million tons of plastic produced annually ends up in the oceans, much of it in trash vortices like the Pacific garbage patch [National Geographic News]. Most of this plastic–80 percent of it, in fact–comes from beaches, streams and other land-based sources, not illegal ocean dumping.

The sailors departing from San Francisco tomorrow, who hail from the non-profit Project Kaisei, will experiment with ways to capture floating plastic particles, and also hope to draw attention to the way we view and handle plastic on land. Their ultimate goal is to assign value to that plastic, particularly the overwhelming majority that is never recycled. Technologies that convert plastic to fuel, clothing, or simply more profitable plastic could give people a good reason to pick up all that plastic and make a profit from it [National Geographic News].

Related Content:
80beats: Plastic-Devouring Bacteria Could Keep Soda Bottles Out of Landfills
DISCOVER: The World’s Largest Dump: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
DISCOVER: The Dirty Truth About Plastic
DISCOVER: Think You Can Live Without Plastic?

Image: flickr / afoncubierta

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
  • http://www.eightforums.com Windows 8 forums Beta Master

    thats sad that so much trash is out there.

  • http://pauloflaherty.com Paul OFlaherty

    I wonder if there would be much commercial value in simply trawling all this plastic for recycling?

  • http://clubneko.net robot makes music

    No way to sort the plastic, not able to recycle a mush, unfortunately, at this time. At least, no way that’s commercially viable.

  • April Dyer

    Forget commercially viable. What about the health of our oceans? If the ocean health dies; kiss the health of other wildlife goodbye. What about volunteer cleanup before this gets any worse and something other than plastic or even less plastic in our lives. Instead of having convicts sitting in jail; why not have them clean up this wretched mess. This is horrible. I know that ocean liners were dumping garbage into our oceans too. I am slowly removing plastic from my life.

  • JD

    I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that its ‘twice the size of Texas’. Wow. Hard to look at that and maintain hope for our collective future.

  • Tom Lucas

    Proof that the earth is infested with humans as opposed to inhabited. The human race is a pestilence upon the planet.

  • Maggie

    I was wondering if anyone ever thought about the other sources of all this waste? When I was in the military, stationed on a cutter, we would just “float test” our trash. Cans and glass were saved for in-port dumps, plastic was melted down or dumped in-port as well. But metal and food was dumped over the side as well as raw sewage that was not filtered in any way. When a storm hit, most of the garbage would blow over the side as well. It was tied down but not well enough to prevent any of it from blowing over. We would lose tons of trash in one trip. That always bothered me and there was nothing I could do or say as I was the lowest on the totem pole. No one seemed to bat an eye at the things we dumped over the side. I know this is common practice for ships today. We once chased a “mass” for tens of miles until we discovered it was Navy junk. Basically, it was a large net, some life rings, and a lot of garbage (plastics, cans, glass, food), that was dumped off a Navy cutter. We pulled it on board and sent it back to them. Ironically. I’d love to see someone challenge the military and their “environmentally friendly” practices. Many of the small boat stations in the Coast Guard don’t even recycle. That’s just sad. Thanks, had to have my say.

  • YouRang

    There probably isn’t enough existing data to say what the temperature was there before. but surely the currents are going clockwise. The air currents entrained above it would be a high. So the differing light absorption and heat capacity nature of plastic compared to water would modify the perennial high that pretty certainly has existed above it. IOW either increasing or decreasing global warming or at least modifying the effects of GW on the countries most closely downstream of it–US and Mexico and Canada. The people most affected probably are the nuts who deny GW in Arizona and Texas. (Despite all the record highs in Arizona this year they still will refuse to see.)

  • Joe

    If all this plastic had been made with d2w Controlled-life technology it would have harmlessly degraded long before it reached the North Pacific. Don’t ban plastic – it’s much too useful – just make it with d2w.

  • Timmy

    This makes me a sad panda…

  • http://windows8tm.com Windows 8 Technical Manual

    I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that its ‘twice the size of Texas’. Wow. Hard to look at that and maintain hope for our collective future.

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