Could we clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Lots of human refuse ends up in the ocean. See more pictures of ocean conservation.
Photo courtesy NOAA 200 Years

About a thousand miles off the coast of California floats one of mankind's dirtiest little secrets. Or at least it was a secret before the late '90s, when a seafaring scientist stumbled upon it in horror. It's a floating dump in the ocean, big enough to hold one or two Texases or maybe all of North America, depending on who you ask [sources: Stone, Silverman, SSF].

The discrepancy in size estimates may be due to the fact that since most of the trash is below the surface, the borders are almost impossible to see from above the water. Plus, the trash moves around with the currents, and there's more than one of these patches. At least one more lies in the Pacific, and they dot the entire globe. Most often, "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" refers to the one extending from Hawaii to San Francisco. That patch of trash is supposed to be the biggest, sporting an impressive 3.5 million tons (3.1 million metric tons) of watery garbage [source: SSF]. And at least 80 percent of it is plastic [source: Berton].

For decades, we've been told plastic doesn't degrade -- that it sits in landfills forever and ever and therefore it is very, very bad. (Unless you're going to Mexico and need to provide your own water so you don't get the runs -- then, it's also pretty handy. But still, very, very bad.) The truth is, plastic does degrade. It just doesn't biodegrade.

Plastic will photodegrade, a process by which it ultimately ends up breaking into countless tiny bits of the same substance. In a landfill, this may not make a huge difference. But when that plastic is seaborne, it makes all the difference in the world. And there's the rub: An ever-increasing amount of the world's ever-increasing amount of plastic refuse is ending up in the ocean.

In fact, the Pacific Ocean now hosts the largest trash dump on Earth. It's called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and it's not a pretty picture. Waste dumped both on land and at sea has made its way into a swirling vortex of oceanic trash that threatens sea life, aquatic ecosystems, fishing industries and the safety of the human seafood supply. In some coastal areas, a day at the beach is becoming a day at the sandy trash heap.

In this article, we'll see what's being done about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We'll find out who wants to clean it up and what methods they propose to get the Herculean task done. We'll also see why that cleanup effort might be doomed from the start.

But then, there's certainly nothing wrong with a little optimism.