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An Ocean Full of Plastic Trouble

October 18, 2010

Plastic debris like this eventually finds its way to the North Pacific Gyre (The Great Pacific Garbage Patch) where it further degrades into destructive little pellets.

The intrepid crew of the Billabong seaplane expedition to the North Pacific Gyre.

Last year I had an opportunity to join my friend Hayden Smith, an avid ocean environmental activist from New Zealand, to visit the North Pacific Gyre.  Our goal was a 700-mile flight into the Pacific Ocean to meet up with Capt. Charles Moore and his research vessel, the Algalita to see, first-hand, the massive accumulation of plastic swirling in the gyre.

Sea conditions, unfortunately, precluded our ability to land and meet Capt. Moore, but we did see the long lines of plastic rubbish along the convergence zone.  Stretched as far as the eye could see to the horizon, the floating plastic was coralled  by the opposing currents created by the warm and cold seawater colliding.

It takes decades for most plastics to photodegrade, and the process eventually renders it into tiny plastic pellets.  At all stages of disintegration, the plastic poses a threat to wildlife.  Everyone has seen marine animals like seals and turtles entangled in plastic rubbish and rogue fishing nets.  Less known is the fate of countless seabirds who consume plastic junk, mistaking it for food.  As the plastic is rendered into even smaller particles, it is small fish who are victimized as they mistake it for plankton.

As its closest neighbor, Hawaii has a vested interest in ongoing research into the North Pacific Gyre.  Plastic debris and other marine rubbish is already finding its way to Hawaii’s beaches.  The Northwest Hawaiian Islands and their marine sanctuaries are most vulnerable.  We need more knowledge about what we are up against, and some innovative ways to deal with the problem.  Clearly, the point-source pollution must be stopped.  The vast majority of the offending material is generated on land and washed into the ocean through storm drains, streams and rivers. The actual point of origin can be anywhere in the world.

The fate of this sea bird was sealed by its meal of plastic debris. Photo: Chris Jordan

As technology is developed for recycling the plastics into useful fuels, there is a the possibility of developing ocean going vessels that can not only collect the material, but refine it into fuel to power themselves as they go.

In the meantime, it is important that individuals like Capt. Charles Moore and Hayden Smith are sounding the alarm, and spending their time and money to make sure that the rest of us notice the problem.

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