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What Should I Know About Earth’s Floating Islands of Garbage?

Environmental issues are a major interest of Kelley's, especially pollution, climate change, deforestation, and endangered species.

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Must We Fill Every Ocean on the Planet With Plastic?

Contrary to popular belief, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can’t be seen from space, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a big freaking mess. Roughly located between California and the Hawaiian Islands, this floating layer of refuse has been called “Gilligan’s Island,” because it’s like that inane sitcom from the 1960s that simply won’t go away.

Comprised mostly of plastic—say, about 80 percent—Gilligan’s Island is more than twice the size of the state of Texas, over 30 feet deep, and weighs over 80,000 tons. It’s been growing tenfold every decade since 1950 and isn’t going away unless someone removes it. There are other floating garbage patches too and they won’t simply disappear either.

Let’s study these floating islands of garbage and see what can be done to either greatly reduce them in size or eliminate them.

Plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Basics of Oceanic Garbage Patches

The earth has five major gyres and the North Pacific Gyre helped bring about the creation of what has been called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). Gyres are produced by the earth’s various currents, which move in either a clockwise or counterclockwise fashion, in the process creating a central area where the water, relatively calm, draws in matter from the outside. In subtropical zones, this central area is called the doldrums or horse latitudes. (In the days of sailing ships, Spanish sailors would lighten their ships and/or preserve water by throwing overboard their horses, hence the name.)

The existence of the GPGP was predicted in the late 1980s and identified when oceanographer Charles J. Moore rode a boat through the area in 1997. In an essay for Natural History magazine, Moore wrote:

"I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments."

According to a study made by Moore in 1999, there is six times more plastic in the GPGP than zooplankton, tiny animals at the bottom of the ocean’s food chain. The waters off California have shown similar plastic pollution. Back then, these numbers shocked many oceanographers.

Effects of Pollution on Humans

Yes, indeed, something fishy is going on, because the earth’s marine creatures are ingesting plastic at an alarming rate. And, of course, once fish eat plastic, the plastic either passes to the other marine creatures eating them or to people at the top of the food chain. Many marine creatures die after consuming plastic too, as their digestive tracts can’t digest plastic and large chunks of plastic can also cause lethal blockages.

As plastic degrades in the water, succumbing to a process known as photodegradation, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. This disintegration releases toxic chemicals into the environment. These chemicals include Bisphenol A, PCBs, and derivatives of polystyrene, all of which either are or can be harmful to humans. Moreover, all floating debris can absorb pollutants from water, endangering animals and people as it continues floating about.

what-should-i-know-about-the-earths-floating-islands-of-garbage
Caribbean garbage patch

Caribbean garbage patch

Plastic debris on Cocos Islands

Plastic debris on Cocos Islands

Floating Garbage Patches Around the World

According to the article “Pacific Plastic Trash Island” on the website for The Chic Ecologist, there are actually two trash islands in the Pacific Ocean, one west of California and the other east of Japan. These floating islands aren’t easily seen from the air or satellite images because the trash is suspended in water below the surface, prompting some people to claim they don’t exist.

To reduce the size of these trash islands, the website recommends eliminating the use of disposable plastic bottles and bags, and replacing them with reusable metal or canvas containers. As for the trash that’s already out there, it suggests using floating recycling plants so the plastic could be recycled, or simply recovering the trash and using it to create a “utopian island.”

North Atlantic Garbage Patch

The Atlantic Ocean has its own garbage patch as well. Located within the North Atlantic Gyre, this layer of debris, much of it plastic, was first documented in 1972. Roughly equivalent to the size of the Sargasso Sea, a becalmed area of the ocean created by the aforementioned gyre, this patch is estimated to be hundreds of square kilometers in size and may contain as much as 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometer.

As this area is the approximate location of the so-called Bermuda Triangle, a scene of many marine and aerial disasters throughout history, perhaps this is nature’s way of getting even with people for dumping trash that ends up in the Triangle!

Trash Island in the Caribbean Sea

According to an article by the Independent on looptt.com on 11/4/17, a huge floating mass of garbage, mostly plastic, has been found by divers off the coast of Honduras, and it's heading toward the Cayos Cochinos Marine Reserve. Ironically, the divers were searching for pristine dive sites when they made the find. The article said the trash was coming from the Motagua River in Guatemala, the source of much pollution in recent years.

Interestingly, by some estimates, there may be more plastic than fish in the oceans by the year 2050!

Indian Ocean Garbage Patch

Discovered in 2010, the Indian Ocean Garbage Patch (IOGP) is not quite as obvious as other oceanic garbage patches because it doesn’t consist of one immense floating mass of plastic and other debris. Nevertheless, it is there and can be measured to some extent. The concentration of plastics in the IOGP has been estimated to be about 10,000 particles per kilometer.

Which Countries Dump the Most Plastic Waste into the Oceans?

As stated in the article “Americans Are Not Causing the Ocean Plastic Problem,” on MSN.com, dated 1/1/2021, per a study published in October 2020 by Science Advances, the US is not one of the worst countries mismanaging its plastic waste; in fact, the US mismanages only 2 to 3 percent of the plastic it produces. The next lowest countries for mismanagement are Italy (13 percent) and Japan (15 percent). The worst countries mismanaging their plastic waste are Russia, Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, and Egypt, all of which mismanage 90 percent of the plastic they produce. Even worse, Kuwait and Oman mismanage 100 percent of their plastic waste!

Even though the US produces the most plastic in the world, it is the best at managing it, while Indonesia, which produces one-fifth as much plastic as the US, is responsible for 10 percent of the world’s floating plastic waste; and India is responsible for 7.5 percent of the total plastic dumped into the oceans.

Some countries, instead of using plastic containers for beverages or food, are switching to glass bottles or paper cartons, both of which emit more carbon to produce than plastic, which is more recyclable than either of those alternatives. Moreover, the US is one of the most productive countries at using plastic waste to produce products such as clothing, cabinetry, and shoes.

Floating tube used by The Ocean Cleanup

Floating tube used by The Ocean Cleanup

An artist's depiction of floating trash islands

An artist's depiction of floating trash islands

How Bad Is the Problem?

Per the article, “Ten Million Tons of Trash Floating in the Pacific,” written by Frosty Wooldridge, found on the website for Independent News, every hour humans toss 2.5 million pieces of plastic into the oceans; and 46,000 pieces of plastic float on every square mile of ocean! Wooldridge also goes on to write that many of our beaches are heavily littered with pieces of plastic. Even beaches of the remote Galapagos Islands suffer from plastic pollution.

Moreover, plastic gill nets and monofilament lines wreak havoc on water-dwelling animals, essentially strangling them to death. It appears parts of the world are becoming plasticized refuse dumps toxic to most living things.

In fact, the problem of oceanic plastic may be considerably worse than previously thought. As stated in an article on MSN.com titled “Scientists find 416 million pieces of plastic debris on remote islands,” dated 5/21/19, what we see piled on islands may only be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A survey of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean shows that over 400 million pieces of plastic litter the islands, most of it buried under the sand and therefore not easily seen or counted. The survey estimated that the 27 islands of the archipelago are covered with 262 tons of plastic.

A recent worldwide estimate is even more alarming: 5.25 trillion plastic items are now in the earth’s oceans, more than all the stars in the Milky Way. And the amount of plastic the world is using has increased dramatically over the last 10 years.

Even if we got our hands on this plastic pollution, what could we do with it?

Since plastic is not biodegradable, burying it in a landfill works fine as long as water doesn’t get into the plastic and causes the chemicals in it to leach into the environment. Plastic can be burned too, but the resultant smoke isn’t healthy to breathe.

Is Recycling the Answer?

Wooldridge suggests that a solution to the problem would be to create a 10- to 20-cent deposit on all plastic containers sold anywhere in the world. This would create an economic incentive to return the plastic to recycling facilities rather than dump it into landfills and also make it profitable to collect what’s already floating around in the world.

Please keep in mind that the state of California already offers a deposit return on all plastic bottles. For instance, number one plastic (or clear plastic), can have a refund value of as much as one dollar per pound. But most states don’t offer refund value on plastic containers; that is, they haven’t passed “bottle bills” as California, Oregon and other states have done. (One reason states haven’t passed a bottle bill is because this deposit adds cost to the items.)

Clearly, if all states passed bottle bills, this would almost certainly help limit the expansion of floating garbage patches in the world’s oceans.

Will the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Soon be Removed?

According to an article in Wikipedia, The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organization located in the Netherlands, has begun cleaning up the planet’s oceans. As of October 2021, the organization has removed 62,000 pounds of floating plastic trash from the GPGP; it also wants to remove great amounts of plastic waste from the world’s more than 1,000 rivers.

The Ocean Cleanup has recently come under fire because it seems to be removing plastic waste that appears to have few if any oceanic organisms living in plastic that’s supposedly decades old. But a spokesperson for The Ocean Cleanup said the ocean’s garbage patches tend to collect in gyres, where the water is relatively calm and contains few nutrients. And, since plastic debris tends to float near the surface, it’s bombarded by UV radiation, which kills organisms; thus the plastic removed from the GPGP may look new, clean, and undamaged.

The Ocean Cleanup seems to have millions of dollars in funding and appears to have developed a technology that works, but this project could take a long time to complete. The organization hopes to remove 90 percent of the trash from the GPGP by 2040. Be that as it may, how long will it take to clean up other floating garbage patches in the world? That question will have to be answered at a later date.

Could We Build Islands Made of Plastic Waste?

Per an article on treehugger.com entitled “Recycled Island Turns Plastic into Paradise,” dated May 27, 2020, WHIM architecture, an organization founded in 2005 in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, envisions building a giant island made of waste plastic between California and the Hawaiian Islands. Such a recycled island could cover an area as large as 4,000 square miles and have entire communities built upon it. The waste plastic would come from the North Pacific Gyre, after which it would be cleaned and remade into recycled plastic suitable for use in construction.

WHIM Architecture claims this floating island would be completely self-sufficient and nonpolluting. An important aspect of this recycled island would be the cultivation of seaweed, which would provide food, fuel, and medicine and act as a CO2 absorber for the environment; it would also provide a habitat for fish, which could be eaten by residents.

Incidentally, per various videos on YouTube, building islands on trash is something that’s actually taking place in various parts of the world. Trash Island in the Maldives is built entirely on the trash generated in this island nation located in the Indian Ocean. Individuals around the world have built homes on floating trash as well. Is this the beginning of a new paradigm for recycling the world’s waste?

Action Is Needed

The size of the GPGP and other floating garbage patches is debatable because we haven’t established parameters for identifying and measuring them. All we know for certain is they’re out there and growing bigger by the minute, and they aren’t going anywhere unless somebody sucks up the trash and moves it to landfills and/or recycles it.

What average citizens can do about the problem is make sure they dump all their plastic waste into trash cans, assuming the contents of which are eventually dumped into public landfills. At least this will keep the plastic out of waterways and eventually the oceans. Recycling plastic can also help reduce the problem as well. So if you aren’t recycling plastic, please start doing so right away.

Of course, the garbage in the oceans right now will eventually have to be removed, and governments will have to get involved in this process because removal will be very expensive. Then again, private enterprises may find a way of making money from its removal. At any rate, vote for legislators and candidates who advocate cleaning up the earth’s floating garbage patches and recycling all manner of plastic waste.

Let’s hope Gilligan’s Island will eventually disappear forever!

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2012 Kelley Marks