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Effects of Plastic and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Besides killing wildlife, plastic and other debris damage boat and submarine equipment, litter beaches, discourage swimming and harm commercial and local fisheries. The problem of plastic and other accumulated trash affects beaches and oceans all over the world, including at both poles. Land masses that end up in the path of the rotating gyres receive particularly large amounts of trash. The 19 islands of the Hawaiian archipelago, including Midway, receive massive quantities of trash shot out from the gyres. Some of the trash is decades old. Some beaches are buried under five to 10 feet of trash, while other beaches are riddled with "plastic sand," millions of grain-like pieces of plastic that are practically impossible to clean up.

Most of this trash doesn't come from seafaring vessels dumping junk -- 80 percent of ocean trash originates on land [source: LA Times]. The rest comes from private and commercial ships, fishing equipment, oil platforms and spilled shipping containers (the contents of which frequently wash up on faraway shores years later).

Some efforts can help to stem the tide of refuse. International treaties prohibiting dumping at sea must be enforced. Untreated sewage shouldn't be allowed to flow into the ocean. Many communities and even some small island nations have eliminated the use of plastic bags. These bags are generally recyclable, but billions of them are thrown away every year. On the Hawaiian Islands, cleanup programs bring volunteers to the beaches to pick up trash, but some beaches, even those subjected to regular cleanings, are still covered in layers of trash several feet thick.

Scientists who have studied the issue say that trawling the ocean for all of its trash is simply impossible and would harm plankton and other marine life. In some areas, big fragments can be collected, but it's simply not possible to thoroughly clean a section of ocean that spans the area of a continent and extends 100 feet below the surface [source: UN Environment Program].

Nearly all experts who speak about the subject raise the same point: It comes down to managing waste on land, where most of the trash originates. They recommend lobbying companies to find alternatives to plastic, especially environmentally safe, reusable packaging. Recycling programs should be expanded to accommodate more types of plastic, and the public must be educated about their value.

In October 2006, the U.S. government established the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine Monument. This long string of islands, located northwest of Hawaii, frequently comes into contact with the Eastern Garbage Patch. After the creation of the monument, Congress passed legislation to increase funding for cleanup efforts and ordered several government agencies to expand their cleanup work. It may be an important step, especially if it leads to more government attention to a problem that, while dire, has only received serious scientific attention since the early 1990s.

For more information about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, including how to volunteer for cleanup efforts, please check out the links on the next page.

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