A close look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

January 31, 2013

When that plastic water bottle that you brought to basketball practice was empty, you probably recycled it. But lots of plastics don’t end up in the recycling bin. (Think deli containers and straws.)

So where do they go? One place is the Pacific Ocean, in an area that has been called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A team of scientists recently sailed through the patch and found lots of plastic — not floating water bottles but thousands of pieces, most of them no bigger than your fingernail, from plastic products. Scientists are studying the problem, but they say the solution isn’t just up to them. It’s up to you, too.

Plastic explosion

Plastics have become a big part of our lives in a short time. Your grandparents didn’t have resealable plastic sandwich bags in elementary school. Plastic soda bottles weren’t invented until the 1970s. Once these and other plastic containers became popular, they began filling landfills, or huge garbage dumps.

Many communities started recycling programs so the landfills wouldn’t become full so quickly. But lots of plastics don’t make it into the bins. The Environmental Protection Agency, the part of the government that studies recycling, reported that only 8 percent of plastic waste was recycled in 2010.

The rest doesn’t all go to landfills. A plastic bag can blow out of a trash can and into a creek, then float down to a river, then into the ocean. Twenty years ago, people started noticing that plastics were collecting in the North Pacific Gyre (pronounced “jire” — it rhymes with “tire”), a system of currents that swirl in a circle that stretches from California to Japan. Newspapers and magazines published photos of floating trash and nicknamed the area the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.


The SSV Robert C. Seamans recently carried scientists through a portion of the Pacific Ocean to collect samples of plastic floating on the surface and just beneath. (Jonathan Waterman)

The Sea Education Association (SEA), which has been studying oceans for 25 years, organized a trip last fall to study the plastics found on the Pacific Ocean surface and just below.

What does it look like?

“If you’re looking for the plastics [from the deck of a boat] . . . chances are you may not even see it,” said Emelia DeForce, chief scientist on the expedition. “Almost never will you find water bottles. That type of plastic actually sinks.”

But DeForce and 37 other scientists and crew members on the 134-foot SSV Robert C. Seamans found plenty of plastic. They collected some of it with fine-mesh nets, then counted the pieces using tweezers.

“The majority is between one and 10 millimeters,” said DeForce, 33.

She talked by phone with KidsPost after returning home to Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “Over time, wind, rain and [ultraviolet] rays will break the plastics down.”

Between San Diego, California, and Honolulu, Hawaii, the crew found 69,566 pieces of plastic.

On one unusually calm day during the 36-day expedition, the crew hit the plastics jackpot. “You could see little mini veins of plastic just going through the ocean,” DeForce said. The crew dropped a net and towed it for a mile. “We got 23,000 pieces of plastic,” she said. “That was the extreme.”

Other times, they would collect just a few pieces of plastic.

Wind and ocean currents had a large effect on the number of plastic pieces that the crew found.

Along for the ride

When crew members pulled up the nets, they also found marine life — tiny crabs and gooseneck barnacles — attached to the plastic. Hilary Hoagland-Grey of Arlington, who studied marine science with SEA while in college in the 1980s, said she was especially interested in “the whole idea of little microcosms traveling across the ocean [on plastic].”

One of the crew’s unusual finds — a refrigerator — had lots of tiny creatures inside it, Hoagland-Grey said. But even small pieces of plastic had plankton attached.

SEA plans to study whether the plastics are affecting the tiny living creatures the crew collected, DeForce said.

But sea life is a main reason why scooping up all the plastic isn’t possible, she said.

“When people start to ask questions about what can we do about this . . . when you try to clean up the plastics, you’re cleaning up the regular marine life that’s there.”

What to do?

SEA aims to spread the word about its expedition in the hope that people will keep more trash from reaching the oceans.

“Plastic is very important to us as humans. . . . We need plastics in our lives,” DeForce said. But she and Hoagland-Grey said we also need to be more aware of how we use plastics.

“I would ask kids to look around them and ask how many plastic things did they use today and not put in the recycling bin,” said Hoagland-Grey, noting that most cities and counties don’t recycle all plastics.

So next time someone offers you a straw for your chocolate milk, try saying, “No, thanks.”

You might keep one more piece of plastic out of the landfills and out of the oceans.

WRITE: Keep your own plastics journal

Christina Barron

→The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

A team from the Sea Education Association collected almost 70,000 pieces of plastic in the swirling waters in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean.

SECTION: {section=lifestyle, subsection=kidspost}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!