Is the Giant Trash Island a Myth?

Humans have been dumping garbage into the oceans for as long as we have sailed the seas. In the last century that trash has turned deadly as we have included plastic waste products for the first time.

The earliest form of plastic was created by Alexander Parkes, an English inventor as far back as 1855 and the first commercial plastic product, Bakelite was invented in 1909 by Leo Hendrik Baekeland. From that point on, the World had consumable products that would not easily go away.

We have been dumping human garbage at sea for many years, both products that would otherwise have ended up in a landfill, or the garbage thrown from ships, both military and civilian as they cross the ocean. Even products that would normally quickly degrade are tossed in tough plastic bags.

Some products do break down, even the plastic ones in the harsh marine and sun environment. The problem is that many plastics break down into small floating pieces. So, what might have been a gallon milk container, may now be floating in tiny pieces.

Add to the growing mass of floating garbage the strong ocean currents such as the North Pacific Gyre, and you have a force that has shaped these floating bits into huge "islands." Some of these floating masses contain styrofoam, plastic, fishing nets, even old refridgerators.

While many stories have been written about the trash island, "twice the size of Texas", it has taken on the status of an urban myth because it can't be seen by satellite. Armed with the fantastic tools of Google Earth and other satellite visioning tools, literal armies of armchair planet surfers are scouring the globe for everything from Noah's ark to the trash island and coming up with nothing. Blogs are filled with questions about its latitude and longitude, or "Why can't we see it on Google Earth?" The answer is that much of the plastic is translucent and floating below the surface of the water. Marine researcher, Charles Moore, of the Algalita Marina Research Foundation in Long Beach, can attest to the existence of the island. He has been studying it for over ten years. His last estimate was that the trash in just one of these "islands" weighs over 3 million tons. He believes that given current technology, there is no way to mechanically skim the plastic from the ocean.

Further research is needed and a plan to launch unmanned drones to the island in order to better understand its size and makeup, is still over a year away. Moore recommends recycling the plastic but has not come up with a suitable way of collecting the extremely brittle floating material. There are currently projects underway to create new bacteria that will consume plastics and other petrochemical-based products. But, no plan has been offered to release these into the ocean to attack this mess. A great deal of research would be required before releasing a novel pathogen into the wild.

This is an issue that is "out of sight and out of mind" for most people and therefore continues unchecked. The toxins being released by this massive trash island are affecting a marine ecosystem already in peril from global warming, over-fishing and the release of chemicals into the ocean. In addition to the chemical release, the small bits of plastic are being eaten by marine birds and fed to their young, who eventually die. Their bodies eventually biodegrade and the plastic they consumed is once again released into the ocean to continue the cycle.

The trash island is not a myth, but an important problem that no one wants to claim or deal with because of the vast resources that must be used to clean up this mess and because stopping the behaviors that have led to the island in the first place have not been curbed, nor alternative behaviors discussed.