The specter of ocean garbage

9 Sep

On a spring afternoon walk earlier this year, I obsessively took pictures of New York harbor garbage. A buildup of plastic bottles, crates, driftwood and furniture fragments littered the rocks along our coastal walkway– a strange jumble of junk.

May 2009 photos of NY harbor garbage in Brooklyn

May 2009 photos of NY harbor garbage in Brooklyn

But my local trash doesn’t come close to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch– our global oceanic trash dump– where swirling currents collect garbage and have created an oceanic desert. I can’t even fathom a clump of refuse the size of Texas.

How did we get to this point? A few plastic bottles here? A few cheap plastic items there? In August, researchers took a closer look at the Patch to see our garbage’s impact on the ocean environment.

First off, they found even more garbage than they expected, according to the Associated Press.

“It’s pretty shocking — it’s unusual to find exactly what you’re looking for,” said Miriam Goldstein, who led fellow researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at U.C. San Diego on the three-week voyage.

Plastics in the ocean are (at least) a three-pronged problem from what I can tell:

  • Wildlife get tangled in the junk or choke on it.
  • The plastics break down into smaller pieces that interfere with the life cycles of smaller organisms.
  • Then there’s the unknown of how much these plastics break down into their essential chemicals. As organisms are living in this water, how much do these chemicals build up?

I’m haunted by that floating Texas in the Pacific, the largest “landfill” in the world. Want to be even more depressed? There might be another one at least as large and just as nasty in the Southern Hemisphere.

P.S. Thanks, Suzanne, for the story tip.

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