The Science of Sustainability

Reporter's Notes: Sea of Plastic

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It's hard to imagine the scope and breadth of the Great Garbage Patch that lies in the North Pacific Gyre in the Pacific Ocean between the West Coast and Hawaii. It's estimated to be about double the size of Texas. Most people think of it as an island of trash, but that's not accurate. It's floating debris – about 80 percent of it plastic, according to Charles Moore of Algalita Marine Research Foundation – that is caught between ocean currents. And that debris is getting thicker and thicker in the water.

The current flows eastward at the bottom (southern end) of the Gyre, and westward along the top (northern edge) of the Gyre. And another current runs northward right along the West Coast. In the center of all of those currents is the Gyre, and that's where all the debris drifts. It's like the center of a hot tub where bubbles tend to form. Because of all of the garbage in the Gyre, Moore says it’s "like a toilet bowl that never flushes."

So it's not a matter of this giant area getting any bigger. The concern is that the area will become much denser with plastic, given the increasing amount of plastic and other detritus going into our ocean. Plastic doesn't biodegrade, but it does degrade into smaller pieces, and those pieces are making the water in the Gyre a lot thicker and soupier. Right now, Moore says, there are places in the Gyre where plastic bits outnumber plankton 6 to 1.

There are five Gyres in oceans around the world, and data is just starting to be collected on how much trash and plastic are in all of them. Moore pegs the estimated amount of plastic in the North Pacific Gyre at 3 million tons.

What can be done about it? Biologists and environmentalists all have similar suggestions. Make less trash. Bring your own cup to the coffee shop. Use paper to-go containers at restaurants. Bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store. Recycle plastic containers. Try not to use single-use plastic water bottles. And volunteer for a beach cleanup, since the trash washing up on the beaches is pretty constant.

Listen to the Sea of Plastic radio report online, and find additional resources and links.

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About the Author ()

David Gorn is the former Deputy News Director of KQED Radio, and currently works as a freelancer for National Public Radio. He has worked for three daily Bay Area newspapers, has been Editor-in-Chief of several magazines, and has taught journalism at San Jose State University and San Francisco State University.
  • wayne roth

    Where are all the pictures you told me would be here that go with this story?

    Where are the pictures of the trash on the beach?
    The bottle of Northern Pacific Gyre water? and particularly the microscopic pictures that show 6 times more plastic than plankton in that water????

    wayne

  • admin

    hi wayne:

    You can find our set of pictures here:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/kqedquest/sets/72157606878496245/

  • rose

    Looks like someone from the plastics industry is upset ^^

  • http://www.fakeplasticfish.com Beth Terry

    >>What can be done about it? Biologists and environmentalists all have similar suggestions. Make less trash. Bring your own cup to the coffee shop. Use paper to-go containers at restaurants. Bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store. Recycle plastic containers. Try not to use single-use plastic water bottles. And volunteer for a beach cleanup, since the trash washing up on the beaches is pretty constant.<<

    These are good suggestions for a start. There are many other ways to limit the amount of plastic produced as well. I've been collecting and tallying my plastic waste for over a year, and have created a comprehensive list of ideas for ways to reduce our plastic consumption.

    Feel free to visit my blog, Fake Plastic Fish (http://www.fakeplasticfish.com) for more ideas.

    Beth Terry
    Oakland, CA

  • http://saveSFbay.org Save The Bay

    Plastic trash and debris are indeed harmful for the environment and pose a particular threat to our oceans (as evidenced by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) and our very own San Francisco Bay. In fact, 15,000 plastic bags were removed from the Bay in one day last year! And a recent study found an average of three pieces of trash and plastic along every foot of Bay Area streams leading to the Bay! This trash chokes wetlands, poisons wildlife, harms water quality and threatens public health.

    But we can do something about it. In her comment above, Beth Terry points us toward her blog, which has a great list of changes we can make to reduce plastic, in addition to switching to reusable grocery and shopping bags and picking up trash in the streets or at shorelines and creeks.

    If you’re interested in participating in a shoreline cleanup, Save The Bay hosts monthly cleanup and restoration events at several sites around the Bay. In fact, on September 20, Coastal Cleanup Day, Save The Bay is leading cleanups at sites in Oakland, Hayward, San Jose and San Francisco. Sign up on our Web site at http://www.saveSFbay.org/bayevents.

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  • Matthew

    Is there a way to remove the plastic from the water? Can we send in fishing boats to trawl for the larger pieces of plastic? I am concerned for my children who like to eat fish.

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  • http://www.wastetransferstations.co.uk/ waste transfer stations

    Some communities offer curbside recycling. You may not need to purchase a bin in this case. Some counties offer a pick up location for recycling bins.