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Little Plastic Bits

If anyone's looking for a good subway read, you could do worse than Alan Weisman's The World Without Us. Just about every page would make for great blog fodder, but let's go with the bit about a sailor who finds a massive floating whirlpool of garbage in the middle of the Pacific:

Capt. Charles Moore of Long Beach, California, learned that the day in 1997 when, sailing out of Honolulu, he steered his aluminum-hulled catamaran into a part of the western Pacific he'd always avoided. Sometimes known as the horse latitudes, it is a Texas-sized span of ocean between Hawaii and California rarely plied by sailors because of a perennial, slowly rotating high-pressure vortex of hot equatorial air that inhales wind and never gives it back. Beneath it, the water describes lazy, clockwise whorls toward a depression at the center.

Its correct name is the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, though Moore soon learned that oceanographers had another label for it: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Captain Moore had wandered into a sump where nearly everything that blows into the water from half of the Pacific Rim eventually ends up, spiraling slowly toward a widening horror of industrial excretion.

For a week, Moore and his crew found themselves crossing a sea the size of a small continent, covered with floating refuse. It was not unlike an Arctic vessel pushing through chunks of brash ice, except what was bobbing around them was a fright of cups, bottle caps, tangles of fish netting and monofilament line, bits of polystyrene packaging, six-pack rings, spent balloons, filmy scraps of sandwich wrap, and limp plastic bags that defied counting.

By 2005, the gyre had sprawled out some 10 million square miles—Africa-sized. Moore figures there's some 3 million tons of plastic junk sitting on the surface of the gyre, with six times that much bobbing underwater, weighted down by barnacles and algae. Not to mention the six other major tropical gyres around the world, all with their own floating landfills. (Here's an earlier article on Moore's research.)

Unsightly as it is, the floating garbage is less troublesome than the fact that so much plastic in the ocean keeps crumbling into smaller and smaller particles without ever biodegrading, and get swallowed by various sea creatures—when the particles get small enough, even zooplankton will chow down. No one quite understands what effect this has on sea life,  or the broader ecosystem, although the discovery that plastics act as "sponges" for various toxins isn't much comfort. The particles are everywhere, and are going to be around for millenia, at least until some super-microbe comes along that can  digest plastic.

Anyway, now it seems the U.S. government wants to clean the North Pacific patch up. Sure, it might be impossible—we're talking 3 million tons of plastic, most of it chunks too small to scoop—but that won't stop them from trying. Moore thinks cleanup's too crazy a notion, and we'd be better off trying to curb plastic consumption in the first place. (Fun fact: The United States churned out 120 billion pounds of plastic resin in 2007, double the amount produced 20 years ago.) Of course, the American Chemistry Council thinks cramping plastic production is a horrible idea, and argues that we should focus on putting recycling bins on beaches and cracking down on litterbugs instead. But what would you expect them to say?

Update: Dave Roberts points to a new video of the gyre, shot by

--Bradford Plumer