Trash Island, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex is an area in the north, central Pacific Ocean with high concentrations of garbage debris, made up primarily of plastic. This patch of debris is estimated to be between 0.41% to 8.1% the size of the Pacific Ocean. An exacts size is almost impossible to ascertain because the Trash Vortex is not a solid mass of materials, but rather a concentration of small plastic pieces on the surface of the water that penetrates as deep as 11 km or the entire depth of the ocean’s Pelagic Zone (any area in the ocean that is not close to the sea floor, or seashore). The Pacific Garbage Patch is not visible from space as a solid mass; making exact size measurements really difficult, because it is made up of high concentrations of small plastic pieces. Most of these pieces are microscopic to 1 square centimeter in size. The microscopic pieces are created by physical breakdown of larger pieces like plastic bags, or started out that size as micro abrasives in household and industrial cleaning products; so therefore, the only way of measuring the actual size of Trash Island is to take water samples at various points along the surface and at various depths. A further complicating factor is that there are no set parameters for how many parts per million (or other measures of concentration) that delineate the “island” from surrounding ocean, as there is some degree of pollution in the entire ocean. So what is the “cut off” line? One 2001 study found over 5000 grams of plastic per 1 square kilometer of ocean.
In addition to these plastics, on their own being harmful to the ocean ecology, they also absorb toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A and PCB’s, which get concentrated as they are consumed up the food chain. One example of their insidious danger is the zoo plankton. Fish and other marine animals eat the zooplankton (including krill) by filtering sea water. Plastic debris is mixed in , so any given mouthful of zooplankton will have a percentage of plastic pieces. Sea creatures are turning up dead, with accumulations of plastic in the stomachs, dying from malnutrition or poisoning. Mammals like whales who eat tonnes of krill daily, could be in real danger.
How Was Trash Island Formed?
Trash Island formed in the North Pacific Gyre. A gyre is a vortex of air or water. The North Pacific Gyre results from the Earth’s rotation causing a Coriolis Effect; a phenomenon whereby the Earth must, due to the laws of physics, rotate faster at the Equator, where the Earth’s circumference is the greatest, and not at all at the poles. An object, then moving north from the Equator will be deflected east, as the Earth turns slower moving away from the equator. Water and air move around the planet and are acted on by the Coriolis Effect, resulting in water vortexes, or places of debris accumulation; like how a tornado sucks in debris as it spins. Trash Island is then formed by garbage coming from the east coast of Asia; leaving the shore, it takes about 1 year or less to reach the North Pacific Gyre; and the west coast of North America; leaving the shore, trash takes about 6 years to reach the North Pacific Gyre.
How Can Trash Island Be Cleaned Up?
Boats, dragging large, fine gauge, nets filter out some of the garbage, but predictably, end up taking sea life with them. Project Kaisei: Capturing the Plastic Vortex is an initiative to study, clean up and create awareness about Trash Island and others like it around the Earth’s oceans. For more information, you can contact Project Kaisei.