Ocean Researchers Find a New Cause for Alarm: The Atlantic Garbage Patch

By Andrew Moseman | February 24, 2010 3:29 pm

Oceanic_gyresIn summer 2008, DISCOVER set sail for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that Texas-sized soup of tiny plastic bits that might now be an intractable mess in the middle of the ocean. With appearances in newspapers, magazines, and even “Good Morning America,” the Pacific patch became the newest target for environmental hand-wringing, and raised questions over whether it would even be possible to clean up. However, the ocean currents that cause the Pacific gyre don’t just happen in the North Pacific. Scientists at the Sea Education Association just finished a two-decade-long study of the North Atlantic and found similarly sad results.

The team dragged nets half-in and half-out of the water to take a trash census. The researchers carried out 6,100 tows in areas of the Caribbean and the North Atlantic — off the coast of the U.S. More than half of these expeditions revealed floating pieces of plastic on the water surface [BBC News]. Like the Pacific gyre, the Atlantic one—located mostly between 22 and 38 degrees north latitude—contains a dizzying number of small plastic pieces that used to be bags, bottles, and other consumer products. Lead researcher Kara Lavendar Law says it’s difficult to compare the two, but researchers in both places collected more than 1,000 pieces during a single tow of a net [The New York Times].

This similarity is no surprise, according to ocean researchers Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins. Both gyres are areas of little to no ocean currents, surrounded by strong ocean currents that prevent trash from escaping once it arrives. Worldwide, there exist five major oceanic gyres and it is hypothesized by Eriksen and Cummins that all of these gyres will collect marine debris, much in the same way that the North Pacific does [Huffington Post]. You can see the locations in the above image. The North Atlantic gyre that SEA studied also contains the Sargasso Sea, so the plastic is mixed up with the seaweed that grows there.

Most depressingly, reports from the Pacific gyre indicate that fish are beginning to ingest the plastic as pieces get smaller and smaller. And Captain Charles Moore, who discovered the Pacific patch in the 1990s, says cleaning up so many pieces spread out so far would be an impossibly difficult and expensive task. Besides, if people don’t stop throwing away plastic, it wouldn’t do much good.

Related Content:
80beats: Ships Set Sail to Examine the Vast Patch of Plastic in the Pacific Ocean
The Intersection: Voyage to the Vast Island of Garbage
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: NOAA

MORE ABOUT: ocean, plastic, pollution
  • Art

    I am preaching to the choir, but, if you aren’t going to recycle it (good option), or stop buying so much stuff that’s packaged in plastic (best option), the least you could do is put it in a trash can for the city to take care of. Here’s a novel idea: if you are in your vehicle and you polish off the remainder of your 128 ounce big gulp, throw the emptied container in your floorboard until you get home instead of being a degenerate scumbag. Same goes with cellophane for the smokers.

    Littering is inexcusable, especially near bodies of water. INEXCUSABLE. I wish I could take back all junk I threw out the window before I pulled my head out of the mud.

    Maybe you think the end of the world is so near, that it doesn’t matter. It just might be, if we don’t start acting right.

  • http://www.TenthMil.com Jeremy

    It’s bad enough that there’s all this plastic there… but keep in mind that we’ve been adding all kinds of great chemicals to our plastics: fire retardants, pthalates, PBDEs and BPA.

    Those can leach into the water…. get into the food chain… and end up contaminating us when we eat fish, or animals that have been fed fish meal. It’s particularly bad for infants.

    So no, this isn’t just a problem that’s “way out there in the ocean somewhere.” It’s coming home to roost, too.

  • Katharine

    I don’t expect the trashing of the environment is going to let up until some really nasty stuff happens.

  • Mike

    I see littering all the time…I have seen groups leave their spot at California beaches, leaving behind giant scattered piles of trash (mostly from fast food). I’m a wimp too…too scared to mention to the group that they should clean it up…if you saw some of them, you would be too ;-). The few times I have mentioned it (to a less scary group) I was told to f*ck off. Sometimes I will pick some up…often it’s overwhelming and I just try to tune it out.

    Anyway…the worst I have seen is at areas along the Texas coast. In Port Aransas, at the jetty, one can see dozens of fisherman leaving behind all kinds of trash, nets, fishing lines, plastic bags…last summer i saw a sea turtle wrapped up in fish line swimming in the water, although it seemed to be doing OK. You can see seemingly infinite trash wedged between the granite slabs along the walkway too.

    It just seems so many humans are not able to carry a little bit of trash back and dispose of it properly. Many of these areas do have trash bins that are available. There is too great a disconnect to nature now…a dangerous ignorance that permiates society. They can’t see that they are destroying what they like doing, or what feeds them (fishing for example and leaving behind all their trash). For many, I think it’s just a lack of awareness, they are not actually bad people… I know people who care about the planet, but will leave behind trash…when made aware they are like “oh, wow, thanks!, I meant to throw that away!”.

    I was in Spain for 3 weeks in 2008 and saw it there too….trash (plastics) on many beaches and floating in the water. Sadly, I think it will become catastrophic before governments and people actually wake up to it and do something about it or make a change. Personally, I can’t even comprehend how someone could leave such a mess at any scenic place. To leave a pile of red and white KFC trash on a Malibu beach and just walk away.

  • Jake

    Is it just me or does this illustrate the misdirection of policy makers? Cap and Trade? Global Warming? Whatever! Lets focus on what is real – the garbage. We can see this problem happening! It’s not a debate and there is no need for one! Lets come up with policies that will actually help the earth instead of delay action or shift polution to third world countries.

  • Kate

    I agree, Jake!

  • http://www.holodiscustechnical.com William H

    If true (remember the lies about global warming) , then here is a problem that needs world attention to correct, particularly since most shipping is flagged through Liberia and Panama and thus avoids the restrictions and requirements of American- and EU-flagged freight. A simple solution would be to require all of a nation’s ships to be flagged by that nation. Right now, any nation can flag any other nation’s ships and because of the incredibly lax standards of Panama and Liberia, that is why most ships of all sorts, from freighters to pleasure ships are flagged through those two nations.


    I once saw a guy empty his car ashtray on the ground at a fast food restaurant literally 5 feet away from a trash can. I was amazed that this person actually USED an ashtray and then just decided to litter all at once. I was so mad that I followed him hoping I could see where he lived (I’m quite vindictive) but an even better opportunity presented itself. I am a smoker who NEVER disposes of cigarette butts or cellophane improperly, and get very angry when others do, so I myself had an ashtray full of ashes and butts (I know it’s a filthy habit). He went to the grocery for his next stop and thankfully left his window down. I took my ashtray and dumped it in his fast food beverage and put the lid back on. I didn’t stick around to see the aftermath but I’m pretty sure he received some sort of message from it. I hate humans.

  • Jeff

    Willam H: By the lies about global warming, do you mean the lies and misrepresentations told by the anti’s, claiming that the scientific evidence does not strongly support that climate change is happening?

    LLORNKCOR: Great story!!!

  • Scuba_Steve

    I happened to be in Little Cayman a couple of years ago staying at the Southern Cross Club. Beautiful beaches, fantastic views. Wonderful atmosphere. I went wading with a friend and we then swam out from the resort to a very small island about a quarter mile away that was just inside the reef. Expecting a pristine tranquil place we were awed when wandering around the surf line to see a huge assortment of blue, pink, red, green and black sand and stones. Wandering slightly inshore we saw birds nests and a lot of garbage. Upon closer inspection of the coloured sand we saw earlier we discovered that the colour was bits and pieces of plastic. Flip Flops, milk bottles, bottle tops, syringes, fishing line, crowd control barrier netting…. you name it there were traces of it everywhere.

    Anything out there that was able to be washed inside the reef had been collecting on this tiny island where no one hardly ever goes. for a long time. We returned to the resort, and a day or so later I flew home. I remember that trip not for the fun times I had with friends, but for the images i keep with me of the garbage that hides just beyond the perceptive range of view.

    For centuries people assumed when they tossed their crud into the waters it would be carried away, out of sight out of mind – gone forever, and it was…. to them.

    But all that stuff we tossed in the rivers, lakes, streams and oceans made of non decaying material has to wind up somewhere. Too bad that most people just turn a blind eye to it because nowadays when you scratch the surface of paradise it bleeds the colours of a dying rainbow…….

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    I believe as humans we must do at least one thing for our precious earth and only home. I believe we should make using plastics so expensive that we go back to using glass again. If we can’t have cap and trade, we should tax the hell out of all synthetic non biodegradable polymers.

  • http://www.dreamsailraffle.com Project Kaisei

    Ocean Voyage Institute is making a HUGE effort to clean up this mess. They are currently raising funds to go the North Pacific Gyre this summer with a team of volunteers to collect the plastic and trash that has accumulated there, as well as researching environmentally friendly ways to dispose of it. You can help save our oceans and the wildlife that live there by visiting http://www.dreamsailraffle.com, as well as posting our website on your pages!

  • http://forum.fsdome.com/profile.php?mode=viewprofile&u=646115 Sandy Beach

    Just wanna input on few general things, The website design is perfect, the content material is very fantastic : D.

  • Gary Adams

    I don’t know about you, but I don’t throw plastic into the ocean. All my household trash goes to a local landfill. How is this material getting into the ocean? My guess is that most of it is actually coming from Asia and Arica.

  • JC



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