Deakin Communicating Science 2016

EES 200/101

TRASH TALK 1/3: Understanding the world’s largest garbage dump

“Close your eyes and imagine this…you are sailing through the Pacific Ocean, just you and a few close friends, enjoying the mild sunshine, the endless stretch of sea before you and the pod of dolphins who’ve decided to join your journey. Then you spot it. It starts out as one plastic bag floating on the seas surface, quickly followed by a couple of coke bottles, then a ripped fishing net. The further you sail the more concentrated the rubbish becomes. This is the stark reality of what is occurring in the Pacific Ocean.”

Like many of my fellow Australians, I grew up by the beach, spending my summers swimming, snorkeling and surfing. This developed my deep appreciation for the ocean and the unique and delicate ecosystem that exists within our seas. So imagine my surprise and disgust when a representative came to my high school and opened her speech with the above quote.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or Pacific Trash Vortex, was founded by Charles Moore in 1997 as he took a short cut home from a yacht race between Los Angeles and Hawaii. Moore chose to cut through the North Pacific Gyre, a ‘vortex where the ocean currents circulates slowly because of little wind and extreme high pressure systems.’ (Richards, 2009). The garbage patch is actually made of two separate gyres, one either side of the Hawaiian Islands.

gyres

Copyright of NOAA

How did it form?

The swirling motion of the Western and Eastern vortexes attracts the oceans rubbish and collects it in the clam centres of the vortexes. (National Geographic, 2014) The subtropical convergence zone acts like a highway between these two vortexes, collecting rubbish floating along the way and adding to the accumulated rubbish already in the vortexes. Once the rubbish is deposited in these vortexes, it doesn’t leave and as a result huge build ups of garbage occurs.

What is found in the vortexes?

Whilst many people imagine these patches to be almost like a floating island this is not the case. The majority, estimated at 90%, of waste is plastics, and whilst plastic is not biodegradable it does break own into micro-plastics, causing the patch to look more like a ‘plasticy soup’ than a solid mass (NOAA, 2013).

This is of specific concern as plastic doesn’t biodegrade; it photo-degrades, meaning it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, known as flotsam, eventually becoming microscopic and therefore extremely harmful to marine life.

flotsam

Copyright of seapics.com

So how much plastic are we really talking about?

In 2006, the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that every square mile of ocean contains approximately 46,000 pieces of floating plastic, a scarily big number considering the amount is only expected to increase due to modern society’s reliance on plastic. (Moore, 2009)

Who is responsible for the rubbish?

In short, we all are. Samples of the rubbish found in the garbage patches has been traced back to locations the world over. It has been found that ‘80% of marine litter origins from land based sources’ (Theodorou, 2012) and that the remaining 20% is from marine based sources such as shipping vessels, offshore oil rigs and cruises. Every-time someone litters on the street it ends up in our oceans. Every-time someone throws a cigarette butt out of their window, it ends up in our oceans. Every-time someone spits their gum onto the sidewalk, it ends up in our oceans.

The Pacific Garbage Patch is a global issue, and as we will discuss next week, its impacts are harmful to all of us.

In the mean-time, check out this TED talk given by the founder of the crash circle, Charles Moore.

References:

National Geographic 2014, Great Pacific Garbage Patch, National Geographic, retrieved 10th April 2016, < http://education.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/>

NOAA 2013, Marine Debris Program, NOAA, retrieved 5th April 2016, <https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/plastic.html>

Richards, S 2009, ‘The World’s rubbish dump: a garbage tip that stretches from Hawaii to Japan’, The Independent, 5 February, retrieved 13 April 2016, < http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/green-living/the-worlds-rubbish-dump-a-tip-that-stretches-from-hawaii-to-japan-778016.html>

Theodorou, S 2012, ‘Plastic litter in the Sea’, Thesis for Water policy, Law and Governance, Utrecht University, retrieved 3rd April 2016, http://ucwosl.rebo.uu.nl/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Theodorou.pdf

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2 comments on “TRASH TALK 1/3: Understanding the world’s largest garbage dump

  1. taratylinski
    May 3, 2016

    Hi, interesting topic.
    I remember I first heard about it at school, and was shocked that something so big could exist just from rubbish.
    One thing I would suggest you mention is some estimations on the actual size of is, since a lot of the rubbish can float under the surface, making it deceptive of just how much is actually there. Of course, it’s not possible to have accurate measurements since its constantly shifting, but I found this site [1] which does appear to have fairly reliable resources, which could possibly be one of the ones you used within your blog. It mentions that “about 70% of marine debris actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean” and that “debris can sink centimeters or even several meters beneath the surface.” Definitely something to think about, that so much could be hidden, damaging the environment, that we just can’t see.
    Another thing could be that there are many other vortexes [2], not just those two, though I do understand that you are focusing on the largest one, the fact that there are multiple is quite concerning.
    I would also suggest having a list at the end of all the resources you used, just so people are able to check them out for themselves.

    [1] http://education.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/
    [2] http://www.gyrecleanup.org/what-is-the-gyre/

    Like

  2. BTJohnson
    May 5, 2016

    Hey taratylinski, thanks for your feedback! i actually accidentally published it instead of saving as a draft, so ill work on those references. I did also come across those points during my research but chose to omit them due to the word limit. Ill see if i can squeeze them in though as I agree that the depth of the rubbish is an important and disturbing fact. Cheers

    Like

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