SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Efforts have begun to minimize a garbage patch floating in the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of Texas.
Although theoretically predicted back in 1988 based on ocean currents, the patch was not visually confirmed until 1997. Charles Moore, a racing sailor and oceanographer, traveled through the center of the North Pacific gyre, which is one of the five major ocean circular currents. The water in the gyre circulates clockwise in a slow spiral, between California and Hawaii.
While sailing through, he found not only spreads of large pieces like plastic bags and polystyrene, but also innumerable small plastic chips. Worn down pieces of larger debris, these chips absorb toxins in the water until marine life eat them. Those animals are eaten by larger predators, and so on and so forth, and the pollutants move up the food chain. The damage caused to marine life is catastrophic, affecting up to 267 different species.
It is believed that 80% of the garbage comes from land, and 20% from ships at sea. Scientists have discovered that currents carry garbage from the west coast of North America to the gyre in about five years, and debris from the east coast of Asia in a year or less. Check out this animation of how the plastic gets there.
So how does one collect the garbage without accidentally trapping wildlife? Two ships from Project Kaisei (Japanese for Planet Ocean) will sail to the patch in June. They will use specialized nets that will catch 40 tons of larger pieces of plastic to recycle while minimizing any damage to marinelife. They will also use robotic exploring devices to map how wide – and how deep – the garbage patch actually goes.