The North Pacific Gyre: 100 Million Tons of Garbage and Growing

The North Pacific Gyre: 100 Million Tons of Garbage and Growing

merlynne6
merlynne6
Scribol Staff
Environment, August 18, 2009

Plastic Garbage Mass in North PacificPhoto:
Plastic Garbage Mass in North Pacific Gyre
Graphic art – GOOD

The Great Pacific Garbage Dump is Discovered

In 1997, American Charles Moore was sailing his yacht back to California after participating in the Los Angeles to Hawaii yacht race. He chose a short cut usually avoided by sailors and entered the North Pacific Gyre….

In a gyre, very little wind and extremely high pressure weather systems combine to greatly reduce ocean circulation. The largest marine ocean ecosystems are subtropical gyres which cover 40% of the earth’s surface. These immense regions of slowly spiraling warm equatorial air pull in winds and converging sea currents. Everything in a gyre moves slowly. Yachtsmen avoid them because there is too little wind for effective sailing. Gyres are the ‘doldrums’ of maritime history and legends. They contain regions of ‘dead calm’ where no wind blows for several days. Surface chlorophyll density is low, plant and animal growth and biomass is low as well.

Expecting little excitement and a slow uneventful cruise towards California, Moore was soon to have a shocking, unexpected experience.

Ocean Currents in the Pacific OceanPhoto:
Ocean Currents in the Pacific Ocean
Graphic art – NOAA

The North Pacific Gyre is an immense region of slowly spiraling, warm equatorial air that pulls in winds and converging sea currents. The Gyre’s current system has different names depending on location as seen in this map. Slowly turning air and sea currents expire long after the garbage they embrace has been added to the North Pacific Gyre. Gyres are found in all the world’s oceans; the garbage debris problem in the North Pacific Gyre has relatives elsewhere. In nine years, the North Pacific Gyre expanded 10X to 25X times faster than models of global warmng predicted and it is at least twice the size of Texas. It has expanded to the northeast into the eastern Pacific and portions of the Hawaiian archipelago – the northwest island chain and the Papahnaumokukea Marine National Monument.

Monk Seal,  Laysan Albatross / French Frigate ShoalsPhoto:
Monk Seal, Laysan Albatross / French Frigate Shoals
Photo – Duncan Wright, USFWS / Wikimedia

The ocean area of Papahnaumokukea is an extraordinary recent addition to America’s group of 13 National Marine Sanctuaries that are administered by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Encompassing 140,000 square miles (360,000 km) of ocean water, ten islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Papahnaumokukea is the largest Marine Protected Area in the world. The Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge is also within the Marine National Monument boundary and is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Papahnaumokukea supports 7,000 species, one quarter of which are endemic.

Green TurtlePhoto: Green Turtle at Coral Reef / Hawaii
Photo – Mila Zinkova & Keta / Wikipedia

The southwest quadrant of the North Pacific Gyre (NPG) is immediately north of the NW Hawaiian Islands and the huge National Marine Wildlife Sanctuary established in June 15, 2006. A huge, still pristine, invaluable habitat is in danger and it is already receiving pollution from the NPG. Prominent species include the threatened Green Sea Turtle and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, Nihoa Finches, Nihoa Millerbird, Laysan Duck, seabirds such as the Laysan Albatross, numerous species of plants including Pritchardia palms, and many species of arthropods.

Great Pacific Garbage PatchPhoto:
Plastic in Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Photo – Vitauts Jaunarajs / Dreamways

Ninety percent of all rubbish floating in the world’s oceans is plastic. In 2006, UN environment programs estimated that every square mile of ocean contained at least 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. Floating in the surface layer are plastic products, tons of drift nets, plastic bags, packing straps, and common household items like soap, television tubes, automobile tires and deodorant bottles. One suspected spill of plastic bags was measured to have covered ten miles of ocean.

Moore became increasingly shocked as he looked out upon this quiet, isolated region of the North Pacific Ocean. He saw plastic everywhere for the seven days it took to cross the North Pacific Gyre.

The emotional low point of Moore’s initial voyage was the identification of a ten mile region of highest density plastic pollution that was dominated by plastic bags. Moore and his crew identified plastic bags from Sears, Bristol Farms, The Baby Store, El Pollo Loco, Fred Meyer and Taco Bell ‘Chalupa’ bags. The Taco Bell plastic bags were ‘T-shirt’ bags with two hand hold holes that were first introduced in the United States in 1979. Moore noticed that these Taco Bell plastic bags in the NPG showed little signs of breakdown.

Sailing A Sea of Plastic BagsPhoto:
Sailing A Sea of Plastic Bags
Photo – Mister Sustainable

Upon returning home, Moore sold his business assets – he was heir to a family fortune made in the oil industry – and founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to tackle the immense problem of plastic pollution in the North Pacific Ocean. Certainly Charles Moore was not the first person to see the Great Pacific Garbage Dump; we can project its origins back at least 50 years. But he appears to be the first person to not only be horrified but have had the motivation to take action, and the financial muscle to do so.

Joining his research and network was Curtiss Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer based in Seattle Washington known as the “Big Kahuna” of beachcombers. Ebbesmeyer works with a global network of at least 1,000 beachcombers who walk the sand and meticulously collect what has washed ashore. On the North American west coast, what is found reveals what has been kicked out of the North Pacific Gyre. Among the more interesting finds are aircraft parts, LEGO toys and medical waste. The big prize for resale are glass floats that are used by the Japanese on their largest fishing nets, which are worth $1,000 each.

Marine Debris Removal / Marine National MonumentPhoto:
Marine Debris Removal / Papahnaumokukea Marine National Monument
Photo – NOAA

The usual and expected input into the North Pacific Gyre is from endless mini-events. Sailors, yachtsmen, cruise ship crews, and passengers and merchant marine occasionally and casually toss unwanted objects overboard. Little noticed wind continually blows trash and light objects off ships and boats and into the sea. Other tonnage comes from the continents. Industrial waste and human callousness put plastics into local water environments. Rivers and streams bring plastic debris to the coast and ocean. Such events may be trivial if taken one by one, but they are awesomely terrible when their never ending summation is considered.

The earliest identified mega input into the NPG was in May 1990 when a strong storm caused 21 shipping containers to go into the ocean from a container ship, the Hansa Carrier. Five of these were filled with Nike sneakers and boots, perhaps as many as 40,000 pairs. The beach combers network swung into action in California to find and match sneakers, thereby creating pairs to sell at swap meets and make a research contribution as well. In 1992, tens of thousands of bath tub toys such as yellow duckies and blue turtles went into the mid Pacific ocean. In 1994, Hyundai in Seattle contributed 34,000 hockey gloves, chest protectors and shin guards to the North Pacific Gyre Garbage Dump.

Laysan albatross skeleton containing plastic fragmentsPhoto:
Laysan albatross chick with adult skeleton containing plastic fragments
Photo – Ian Jones / Wild Orchids for Trotsky:

Nurdles Live Forever… Almost

The scientific community began to focus attention on the trash in the gyre in the early 1990s. Located in the far offshore ocean, there is no clear international jurisdiction for the NPG Garbage Dump. Another problem is obtaining accurate maps and graphs of the pollution in the gyre. This ocean of plastic garbage is translucent, lies immediately below the water’s surface and is not detectable in satellite photographs. You have go into the North Pacific Gyre to see what is there. Early research by W James Ingraham Jr. (NOAA) predicted that plastic objects in this gyre might slowly circulate for at least 16 years.

Moore soon discovered that the quantity of plastic junk in the NPG was huge and had 6X time the mass of the microscopic plant and animals (plankton) that dominate the biomass of all oceans. Early plastic formulations were often biodegradable over several years but this is not true for current generation plastics. 90% of the plastic garbage now in the NPG has natural degradable cycles that are not well understood but they likely range from 50 to 500 years. Plastic objects 50 years old have already been found in the NPG.

North Pacific Gyre / Water Under the MicroscopePhoto:
Beauty In the North Pacific Gyre Garbage Dump
Photo – tree hugger / Rock Permaculture E-zine

State of the art commercial and industrial plastic formulations do photo-degrade, sunlight breaking them down into smaller and smaller pieces. Plastic polymers are molecular chains built up from identical or similar subunits. Radiation from the sun breaks them down into smaller molecules which are still too tough for living organisms to digest. Sunlight will eventually degrade these molecules further, as will atmospheric oxidative processes where oxygen atoms are added to the plastic molecules, thereby changing molecular structure and function. These final breakdown products can be recycled into organic molecules that are not harmful and can be used by living organisms to build cellular mass and perform metabolic functions. But there is a huge ‘catch’ to this final degradation process: it likely takes 500 years or more.

Dead Laysan Albratross / North Pacific GyrePhoto:
Dead Laysan Albratross / North Pacific Gyre
Photo – Critoris

We are forced to consider what the plastic pollution in the North Pacific Gyre does during its first decade of residence. Every year some 5.5 quadrillion (5.5 x 10 followed by 15 zeros) plastic pellets – about 250 billion pounds of them – are produced worldwide for use in the manufacture of plastic products. When those pellets or products degrade – break into fragments and disperse – the pieces also become concentrators and transporters of toxic chemicals in the marine environment. These plastic polymers act like sponges to soak up pesticides such as DDT, well known plastic pollutant molecules such as PCBs and industrial nonylphenols which are highly poisonous and do not dissolve in sea water. Plastic polymers in the NPG concentrate these toxic molecules up to 1,000,000X the level they would be found by themselves in the ocean.

Jellyfish

Pacific_Sea_Nettle_JellyfishPhoto:
Pacific_Sea_Nettle_Jellyfish
Photo ­- Anastasia Shesterinina / Wikipedia

Another horrific concentration process goes on with nature’s most efficient vacuum cleaners, mucus web feeding jelly fish and salps which are the fastest growing multi-cellular organisms on Earth. Jellyfish and Salps are primitive invertebrates found in the oceans, with species that inhabit every ocean environment from shallow coastal waters to the deep ocean. Jellyfish belong to the Phylum Cnidaria and do not have the familiar physiological systems. They breath by diffusion through their thin skin and move by pulsation of their gelatinous body which is 90% water. They digest using the gastrodermal lining of the gastrovascular cavity, where nutrients are absorbed. A primitive nerve net in the epidermis suffices to transmit stimuli and some jellyfish have primitive light detecting organs called ocelli.

Salps are free floating tunicates that move by contraction and pumping water through their gelatinous body. This water is strained by feeding filters to capture and digest phytoplankton. Salps are not closely related to jellyfish which at first glance they resemble. They provide an important model for the creature from which primitive ocean vertebrates first evolved more than 300 million years ago. Salps and Jellies ‘eat’ and concentrate PCBs and industrial nonylphenols, the most lethal industrial molecules trapped by micro-plastic pellets. These jellies and salps are eaten by fish, which begins the upward progression through the food chain that often ends with a human dinner plate.

Hormones

SteroidogenesisPhoto:
Steroidogenesis
Diagram ­– Mikael Häggström / Wikipedia

Hormones bind to receptor proteins on the cell membrane as the first event in their activation of specific metabolic processes. Early research data suggests that human hormone receptors for estradiol (natural estrogen) cannot distinguish between estradiol and plastic polymer pollutants of the type found in the North Pacific Gyre. If cell receptors are ‘taken’ – ‘bound up’ – by the attachment of pollutant molecules, then when the real estradiol shows up, it has nothing to bind with and will drift away in the capillary network of the circulatory system and eventually be excreted.

Less estradiol hormone activity in metabolism translates into less physiological activity in the processes that this hormone mediates. Lower several important hormone mediated physiological acclivities in human beings and the results will be extremely serious, although not yet predicable with precision. Estradiol mediates reproduction, sexual metabolism and bone physiology; reflect on that for a minute. Almost every multicellular animal has an endocrine system and critical aspects of metabolism that require hormones for regulation and activity.

Laguna GyrePhoto:
Laguna Gyre / Art piece
Made from plastic bags to call attention to North Pacific Gyre Garbage Patch
Photo – Virginia Fleck / Flikr

Eat Plastic Until You Die

Plastic Particles and large debris were collected in each and every trawl during ORV Alguita’s first 6000 mile transect across the North Pacific Central Gyre. The surface layer contained alarming amounts of plastic products, tons of drifting nets, plastic bags, packing straps, and common household items like soap. A soup of plastic fragments was seen in the water column on every dive to confirm findings at the end of a trawl. A suspected container spill of plastic bags covered more than 10 miles of the center of the gyre.

NurdlesPhoto:
Nurdles on the Beach
Photo – Algalita Marine Research Foundation / Heal The Bay

Plastic is believed to constitute 90 per cent of all rubbish floating in the oceans. The UN Environment Programs estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. North Pacific Gyre plastic is 100 million tonnes and growing. Nurdles are tiny, pre-production plastic pellets and resin material whose annual production is at least 60 billion pounds in the United States alone. Much of the multi-billion tons of annual nurdle production ends up on beaches. A 2001 study of beach debris in Orange County California found that 98% was nurdles. Huge quantities of nurdles have been found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the Bay of Bengal and offshore waters in the Philippines. Variations of the Garbage Dump crisis in the North Pacific Gyre are found worldwide.

Nurdles enter the environment when they ‘escape’ the plastic industry during manufacture, transport and packaging. Nurdles are also not retained by the usual trash capture devices such as storm drain screen grates. Sewer systems and waste water treatment facilities do not have any method to remove nurdles before their water is released into the local environment. Nurdles that end up in the coastal ocean ecosystem can be transported to the North Pacific Gyre by the North Equatorial Current.

Floating Islands made from NPG Plastic DebrisPhoto:
Artificial Floating Islands made from NPG Plastic Debris
Architect’s Concept – Michael Barton / Punk Rock Permaculture E-zine

Much of the plastic has become brittle and broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. The tiny bits of colored plastic are mistaken by birds and marine life for food,and get eaten. One result is that birds have their bellies so crammed full of plastic that they can’t take in normal food. You can find their bodies drying in the sun on islands of the bird-rich Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The poster child for the consumption of pelagic plastic debris has to be the Laysan albatross. Syringes, cigarette lighters and toothbrushes have been found inside the stomachs of dead seabirds which mistake them for food.

“Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, Monk Seals, the most endangered mammal species in the United States, get entangled in debris, especially cheap plastic nets lost or discarded by the fishing industry. Ninety percent of Hawaiian green sea turtles nest here and eat the debris, mistaking it for their natural food, as do Laysan and Black-footed albatross. Indeed, the stomach contents of Laysan albatross look like the cigarette lighter shelf at a convenience store they contain so many of them… ” (Robert W Henry III, biologist at the University of California, Santa.)

Floating Islands in the Pacific GyrePhoto:
Floating Islands in the Pacific Gyre
Artist Concept – tree hugger / Rock Permaculture E-zine

Actions

There is no clear legal jurisdiction, no easily identified group of countries that can be identified as legally responsible for the North Pacific Garbage Patch. All of the plastic made in history still exists in some form with much of it accumulating in the oceans. In some regions of the North Pacific Gyre, there is more plastic than biological organisms. Is there any way to clean up the North Pacific Gyre? Do we dare think about all the world’s oceans? Vacuuming is out of the question. Imagine vacuuming every square inch of the land area of the United States down to a depth of 30 meters.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States is looking at techniques to remove concentrated debris and not kill everything in the area at the same time. As a government agency of the United States, NOAA’s interest resides in the impact of this situation on the outer Hawaiian islands and the National Marine Sanctuary. The North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone (STCZ) is the N. Pacific area where marine debris concentrates for several years because of convergence, subsequently to impact the Hawaiian archipelago. The situation is complicated further because the STCZ shifts seasonally between 23 deg and 37 deg. N. latitude. It’s location is also affected by other factors that include El Niño.

Small Floating Islands in the Pacific GyrePhoto:
Small Floating Islands in the Pacific Gyre made from plastic garbage, then planted
Digital Art – tree hugger / Rock Permaculture E-zine

During this summer of 2009, a privately funded research voyage of conservationists and scientists is making two trips through the North Pacific Gyre between Hawaii and San Francisco. They will test techniques for dredging waste without destroying the majority of sea life in the same area. This is an evaluation of variations in the micro-dimensions of netting. Other researchers are looking at possible uses for cleaned and recycled plastic waste taken from the ocean.

Heal the Bay is an excellent example of focused, local political action. The challenge posed by the Great Pacific Garbage Dump in the North Pacific Gyre is awesome and intimidating. However, aspects of the problem can be effectively attacked. Any action that reduces the flow of plastic debris into the environment will reduce the plastic flow into the NPG and reduce the health dangers created by plastic pollution.

Devoted to the protection of Southern California watersheds and coastal waters, particularly Santa Monica Bay, Heal the Bay and Assemblyman Paul Krekorian sponsored Bill AB 258. Major provisions of this legislation include ‘promoting’ zero discharge of nurdles, and implementing new, strict protocols for monitoring and reporting. AB 258 also requires all facilities involved in the manufacture, handling and transport of plastic to implement best management practices to greatly decrease the ‘escape’ of their plastic precursors and products into the environment. Signed into law on October 14, 2007 by Governor Schwarzenegger, the provisions of AB 258 were activated in January 2009.

TerminatorPhoto:
”Reduce Your Plastic Footprint Now!” – The Terminator
Digital Art – fanpop

At the end of the day, let’s get personal. You’ve heard what follows many times and it’s time to read it again :) This global problem emphasizes the need to reduce the use of plastic in all our lives and that is something that is very do-able on an individual and personal scale. The mega-scale problem in the North Pacific Gyre is the summation of the plastic used in hundreds of millions of individual lives. Take that canvas/cloth bag into the store when you go shopping.

Talk about evil plastics that cannot bio-degrade every chance you get at home, in school and in the community. Gorgeous Maui (Hawaii), is one of the most beautiful tourist islands in the world, and is almost one thousand miles distant from the nearest border of the North Pacific Gyre and its monstrous garbage patch. There is always a vast quantity of nurdles and large pieces of deep ocean drift nets on local beaches amidst quantities of plastic debris. Sadly as the NPG garbage patch grows, its distance to Maui is shrinking.

Clean and recycle the plastic you must use whenever possible. Organize and lead a family/school/church cleanup of your favorite trashed area. Do that with your mates on Friday afternoon before the pub weekend begins. “Yes You Can! Yes, We Can!!”

Sources

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

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