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Steven R. Van Hook

Trash Vortex at Sea Larger than Texas
A pile of floating plastic may now double the Lone Star State.
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 by Steven R. Van Hook, PhD

Greenpeace GraphicThe New York Times reports that a pile of floating plastic debris some 1,000 miles northeast of Hawaii may now be double the size of Texas.

The garbage patch is caught up in a gyre of heavy currents and slack winds, and swirls in a whirlpool made of "light bulbs, bottle caps, toothbrushes, popsicle sticks and tiny pieces of plastic, each the size of a grain of rice" and may be doubling in size very ten years.

The Pacific garbage patch was accidentally discovered more than a decade ago by Charles Moore during a sailing race off Hawaii. Here's his TED talk on the topic. Scientists believe other such plastic piles may be found off the coast of Japan and in the Sargasso Sea centered in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Researchers say that toxins leaching from the piles are absorbed into fish tissue from the plastic they eat, which in turn toxify humans further up the food chain.

Here is some additional data on the gyre, courtesy of Greenpeace International:

The North Pacific sub-tropical gyre covers a large area of the Pacific in which the water circulates clockwise in a slow spiral. Winds are light. The currents tend to force any floating material into the low energy central area of the gyre. There are few islands on which the floating material can beach. So it stays there in the gyre, in astounding quantities estimated at six kilos of plastic for every kilo of naturally occurring plankton.  This gyre has also been dubbed “the Asian Trash Trail” the “Trash Vortex” or the “Eastern Garbage Patch”.

This perhaps wouldn’t be too much of a problem if the plastic had no ill effects. The larger items, however, are consumed by seabirds and other animals which mistake them for prey. Many seabirds and their chicks have been found dead, their stomachs filled with medium sized plastic items such as bottle tops, lighters and balloons. A turtle found dead in Hawaii had over a thousand pieces of plastic in its stomach and intestines. It has been estimated that over a million sea-birds and one hundred thousand marine mammals and sea turtles are killed each year by ingestion of plastics or entanglement.

Animals can become entangled in discarded netting and line. Even tiny jelly-fish like creatures become entangled in lengths of plastic filament, or eat the small plastic particles floating in the water.

Chemical sponge

Courtesy of GreenpeaceThere is a sinister twist to all this as well. The plastics can act as a sort of “chemical sponge”. They can concentrate many of the most damaging of the pollutants found in the worlds oceans: the persistent organic pollutants (POPs).  So any animal eating these pieces of plastic debris will also be taking in highly toxic pollutants.

The North Pacific gyre is one of five major ocean gyres and it is possible that this Trash Vortex problem is one which is present in other oceans as well. The Sargasso Sea is a well known slow circulation area in the Atlantic, and research there has also demonstrated high concentrations of plastic particles present in the water.

Ocean hitchhikers

The floating plastics can also affect marine ecosystems in a surprising way, by providing a ready surface for organisms to live on. These plants and animals can then be transported on the plastic far outside their normal habitat. These ocean hitch-hikers can then invade new habitats to become possible nuisance species.

Of course, not all plastic floats. In fact around 70 percent of discarded plastic sinks to the bottom. In the North Sea, Dutch scientists have counted around 110 pieces of litter for every square kilometre of the seabed, a staggering 600,000 tonnes in the North Sea alone. These plastics can smother the sea bottom and kill the marine life which is found there.

The issue of plastic debris is one that needs to be urgently addressed. At the personal level we can all contribute by avoiding plastics in the things we buy and by disposing of our waste responsibly. Obviously though, there is a need to make ship owners and operators, offshore platforms and fishing boat operators more aware of  the consequences of irresponsible disposal of plastic items. 
With so many threats to the world oceans including pollution like the plastic getting stuck in this huge trash vortex, overfishing and climate change we urgently need to rescue marine biodiversity in the most effective way possible.

You can help today by joining the call  for a network of marine reserves that will protect 40% of the world's oceans.  
Source: Greenpeace

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