Pacific Garbage patch, as it's often referred to, exists between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii. Many estimates put its size at over two times larger than the state of Texas (Zhang, Zhang, Feng, and Yang, 2010). Much of this waste is composed of plastic, styrofoam, and other materials containing harmful ingredients that do not break down very quickly. In fact, much of this material ends up in the food chain due to the way it breaks down and is absorbed by organisms in the ocean. This garbage patch has been steadily growing, the product of waste dumping and pollution from the U.S., China, India, and other countries on or near the Pacific Rim. There are currently many scientists trying to both understand the true impact of the patch as well as trying to come up with ways to remedy it and prevent it from growing.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has tripled in size since the mid-1990's and is expected to grow tenfold in the next decade if nothing is done to slow down its rate of expansion (Reid, 2007). This alarming prediction, coupled with the fact that the patch is located in a part of the world's oceans that is relatively unvisited make it difficult to believe the problem will be getting better any time soon. The area of ocean that the patch floats on has currents that spin the trash and concentrate it into a relatively specific portion of the ocean. This is where many of the world's currents combine and swirl from year to year. Author Reid (2007) writes, "It lacks the wind to attract sailing vessels, the biology to encourage fishing, and is not in the path of major shipping lanes. What little air movement there is blows inwards, further trapping the garbage. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Marcus Eriksen, a director at the Algatita Marine Research Foundation, said that "with the winds blowing in and the currents in the gyre going circular, it's the perfect environment for trapping." While the trash is in the ocean, it is doing what could be irreparable harm to sea life, the water it's in, and eventually humans." (Reid, 2007).
Right now, the patch has not garnered much attention due to the fact that humans have not been visibly harmed or affected by its existence. This will certainly change in the future as more and more of this patch is absorbed by the marine life that inhabits it and the surrounding waters. Much of the PCB's and chemical content that is broken down by the sun and wave action is absorbed by the plant life and small sea creatures (Kaiser, 2009). As these substances move up the food chain, humans will begin to ingest them through fish meat and seaweed.
The effect of the patch on the environment has not yet been fully recognized or understood. Author Reid (2007) summarizes the effect of such a patch on the food supplies and humans by stating, "Plastic resists biodegrading. Instead, a plastic shopping bag or pop bottle will photo-degrade over time, meaning that it will break down into smaller and smaller pieces but retain its original molecular composition. The result is a great amount of fine plastic sand that resembles food to many creatures. Unfortunately, the plastic cannot be digested, so sea birds or fish can eventually starve to death with a stomach full of plastic. Even if the amount of plastic in a creature's body is not enough to block the passage of food, the small pellets act as sponges for several toxins, concentrating chemicals, such as DDT, to 1 million times the normal level. This concentration then works its way up the food chain until a fish is served at our dinner table." This is a scary thought, and one that should concern everyone who enjoys seafood and products made from the sea.
Another alarming fat is that the plastics contained in the patch cannot be cleaned up due to their small size, and they are only beginning to break down due to UV exposure. These chemicals leech into the environment in many ways. Reid writes, "Some birds, attracted to the shining in the ocean, approach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in search of food. Marine researchers have commented that pelicans dissected in that area have stomachs so full of lighters that they resemble convenience stores. Sea turtles are also prone to mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, which then cause their deaths or sit in their guts for the decades it takes the bags to break down. In total, 267 species have been reported to have eaten from, or become entangled in, the Patch. According to Chris Parry of the California Coastal Commission, regrettably little can be done to clean up the Patch, although many urge that a decreased reliance on plastic is the first step. "At this point," said Parry, "cleaning it up isn't an option . . . it's just going to get bigger as our reliance on plastics continues." "The long-term solution is to stop producing as much plastic products at home and change our consumption habits." (Reid, 2007).
Economically, the patch represents a major pull on the resources of many of the contributing countries that will eventually need to work together to clean it up. It is far cheaper and easier to reduce the consumption and waste levels of all countries contributing to the patch than it will be to clean it up or deal with the economic fallout (Huang and Chang, 2010). However, at this juncture, little can be done for with the amount that already exists.
Currently, there has been much research being undertaken by U.S. And Chinese scientists to help determine exactly how much garbage and toxins are in the water and how best to deal with them. While many of the theories fro getting rid of such a patch revolve around reducing future consumption of plastics and styrofoam products, other scientists have offered solutions that are relatively simple yet require billions of dollars in investment and decades of work. The Pacific Garbage Patch represents such a unique opportunity for some scientists and entrepreneurs that investment firms have begun to draw up proposals for cleaning up the patch and using the waste to create certain products from the recycled or reusable materials (Sarker, 2011,). This is a bright spot within the garbage patch story, but it is still unclear if today's technology can really turn much of the most toxic substances into something that will be consumed but not once again added to the patch in the future.
Also, the size of the patch has become a major focus of the scientific community concerned with its impact. Recently, some studies have suggested that the patch is nowhere near its original size as measured in the mid-2000's (Dautel, 2010). There is evidence to the contrary however, as the types of materials and plastics are slow to break down, and even as they do, are absorbed by all types of marine life including fish, jellyfish, sea mammals, and plant life. The concern remains that the patch will continue to expand as individuals and governments are unable to effectively combat the consumption and pollution issues.
The most crucial and immediate recommendation for change to help reduce the size of the garbage patch and prevent it from growing is to reduce the amount of consumer goods made out of these materials as well as the consumption of these materials themselves. Certainly it is impossible to instantaneously eliminate these items from store shelves and the like but in educating consumers as to the dangers of these materials and chemicals, more people will begin to understand the true impact of this kind of consumerism (Zhang, Zhang, Feng, and Yang, 2010). That brings up an additional consideration relative to education.
The garbage patch is relatively unnoticed currently due to its remoteness. If the patch was publicized and the results, especially those that will come about in the next decade are made widely known, more will be done about the problems and issues contributing to the patch. Progress toward eliminating the garbage patch has been slow, and much of what will likely need to be done has not yet been defined technologically or logistically. Author Dauvergne (2010) argues, "such "progress" needs to be seen in the context of a rising global population and rising per capita consumption, where states and companies displace much of the costs of consumption far from those who are doing most of the consuming." A shift from consumption to reuse and only manufacturing products tat do not encourage disposability will be crucial.
Another angle that could be exploited to help reduce and eventually eliminate this problem is through legislation. Politically, pollution and green Earth policies are hot button issues currently in many places. California has already tried to help legislate a reduction in disposable plastic items like bags and packaging (Coulter, 2008, 30). It would not be…