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World’s Biggest “Landfill”

It may come as surprise, but the world’s biggest “landfill” isn’t even on land; it’s floating in the water in a broad expanse of the northern Pacific Ocean. Perhaps most startlingly, it covers an area that is roughly the size of Africa.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is actually two separate, but connected swirling garbage patches that collect floating garbage from all over the world. The Eastern Garbage Patch floats between Hawaii and California and the Western Garbage Patch floats between Hawaii and Japan. A powerful current known as the Subtropical Convergence Zone serves as a “trash superhighway” and connects the two patches. Much of the debris found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch consists of small pieces of discarded plastic that have been accumulating over 40-plus years. There is also a significant amount of accumulated chemical sludge that poses numerous hazards to the environment. Staggeringly, in the last 40 years, the patch has grown 100-fold.

For anyone who has come upon the patch either by boat or overhead by airplane, the sight of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is horrifying. In this region, the ocean literally seems to be choked by the trash, exposing the extreme harm that humankind has inflicted on its own planet. Some researchers consider the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to be even greater of a problem than the ocean debris caused by the Japanese tsunami. While the tsunami was a one-off event that dumped considerable levels of waste and toxins into the ocean, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch continues to get fed, grow larger, and pose serious problems for the environment.

In fact, the toxic trash has already taken a harmful toll on marine life, the fishing industry and tourism.

Harmful Hazard

The greatest hazard in the ocean to marine life is plastic. Considering that 10 percent of all of the plastic produced in the world ends up in the ocean, 90 percent of all trash floating in the ocean is plastic and every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic, the situation is dire.

Plastic is not biodegradable and can take 100-plus years to break down into a simpler compound. As a result, it just breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces until it gets sucked up into the bodies of filter feeders – small creatures that obtain food by filtering water for nutritious particles – severely damaging their bodies. Larger sea creatures actually eat the plastic, which ends up blocking their vital passages or poisoning them. Plastics also leech poisons into the water, which become highly concentrated in areas and end up killing off entire food chains. Sea birds, like the albatross, roam widely across the northern Pacific and find food in the water. They frequently end up ingesting and dying from plastic. It has been estimated that up to 200,000 of the 500,000 albatross chicks that are born each year die from consuming plastic.

In addition to harming wildlife, plastic harms commercial fisheries, washes ashore on beaches and discourages swimming, and even damages boat and submarine equipment. The Hawaiian islands receive huge quantities of trash that are shot out from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and some beaches are found to be buried in up to 10 feet of trash, much of which is decades old. Some of the plastic pieces are so small, they are like grains of sand and impossible to clean up. Much of the trash doesn’t originate on land, but comes from commercial ships, fishing equipment, and oil platforms.

Worst of all, there is no immediate solution to the problem. What is needed is a multi-tiered approach implemented immediately and sustained over the course of many years.

No Simple Fixes

Researchers have stated that efforts to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone will not be good enough. If that is the case, then what can be done?

Since the late 1940’s, the world’s addiction to plastic has been increasing exponentially. Today, we must treat that addiction by banning the worst-offender products like plastic bottles and bags. Such products number in the billions worldwide and are likely to remain in the marine ecosystem for hundreds of years. We must replace these plastic products with new products that are manufactured out of non-toxic, biodegradable and renewable materials. Bioplastics, which are biodegradable plastics made from plants (corn), not petrochemicals, are already showing up in a products such as gift cards, food containers, and cellphone casings.  Bioplastics are likely the best resource for replacing traditional plastic that we have and if they can replace plastics altogether, we can stop the relentless feeding and growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

If that is under control, then a concerted effort to slowly clean up the existing trash particles in the Pacific could actually make a real dent in solving the problem.

Plastics on the Rise

The sad fact is that the use of petrochemical-based plastic – especially plastic bags – is once again on the rise after several years of decline. The number of people seeking environmentally friendly options is dropping off, meaning we are left facing an increasing burden of plastic refuse, much of which will undoubtedly end up in the ocean.

As with many impending environmental calamities, it will take an iron will and new legislation by governments worldwide, in order to make a real difference.