Where in the World is the Great Garbage Patch?

by Danielle Cotter

Could you pinpoint the North Pacific Gyre on a map? In which country is the world’s largest landfill located? Don’t feel bad if you can’t answer either of these questions–you’re certainly not alone if you can’t. In today’s throwaway culture, most people don’t give their trash a second thought; as soon as they place a plastic bottle (incorrectly) in the trash, it’s out of sight and out of mind. But for Captain Charles Moore, who first discovered the islands of floating garbage back in 1997, the images of marine wildlife strangled to death by plastic rings will forever be burned into his brain. I had the opportunity to hear him speak a few weeks ago at Boston University, and am now able to answer the two questions above.

 

 

The North Pacific Gyre is the site of the world’s largest landfill, which is a swirling garbage patch floating on the ocean’s surface between Japan and Hawaii. The Great Garbage Patch is split into two sections – the Eastern Garbage Patch is between San Francisco and Hawaii, and the Western Garbage Patch is between Japan and Hawaii. It has been estimated that the garbage patch is the size of Texas, but Moore believes the size is closer to one and a half times that of the United States. In 1999, there were 900,000 pieces of trash per square kilometer. I shudder to think of what that number is for 2011, and what that number will be in 2019.

So how did we get to this point? As usual, “it’s the economy, stupid.” After the factory boom

during World War II, there was demand from consumers and factory owners alike to keep the factories running. Eisenhower urged the American public to “buy anything” and manufacturers followed suit, creating products with shorter life spans and boosting sales. The American economy was booming, and this new throwaway culture eliminated the guilt that comes with consumerism through the marketing of new editions of products. This engaged many Americans in a race to keep up with the Joneses–where do you think all of the outdated products ended up?

What scared me the most was the realization that the majority of the waste was generated during the latter half of the 20th century, and that 90% of it is plastic waste. Our world did not enter the “age of plastic” until the late 1970s, yet it will take thousands of years for the plastic waste of the past forty years to fully disintegrate. Captain Charles Moore urged all of us in attendance to make a change by:

  1. Discontinuing use of disposable plastic products, such as plastic water bottles or plastic bags, despite their convenience.
  2. Donating usable items instead of impulsively throwing things out.
  3. Disposing of trash and recyclables properly—if we are going to be selfish enough to use disposable plastic products, then we need to ensure that they end up going to recycling facilities instead of our oceans.

I would encourage everyone to purchase Moore’s new book, Plastic Ocean, or to at least look at some of the photos from his voyage. The islands of trash, which exist at the mouths of rivers of most urban centers around the world, are enough to make you never want to see plastic again.

If you are interested in taking a small step to keep our oceans clean, please check out Milo Cress’ website.  Captain Moore introduced 10-year-old Milo at the start of the talk, and Milo spoke about his Be Straw Free campaign, which encourages restaurants to offer straws instead of automatically putting them in drinks. 500 million disposable straws are used in the United States each day, and they contribute substantially to the pollution that ends up in our oceans. If you really must have a straw, look into metal straws like these that can be reused!