Anyone who has visited one of America's many beaches has probably seen a piece of garbage get tossed about by the waves or wash up on shore. It is possible that this piece of trash was littered by a careless pedestrian or blown out of a nearby overflowing trash can. But it is also increasingly possible that this piece of garbage originated not from on land but from a gigantic, swirling, island of garbage in the Pacific Ocean that is growing in size, strength, and danger.
For years scientists have been tracking the problematic build-up of garbage in the ocean. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, every square mile of ocean now contains forty-six thousand pieces of floating plastic. In August 1997 Captain Charles Moore stumbled upon a garbage problem that was larger than most people had ever imagined. As he sailed his boat Alguita through a patch of Pacific water known as the North Pacific Gyre, he encountered what can only be described as a floating continent of trash. Remembers Moore, "As I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic." Moore sailed through the trash soup for more than a week, encountering nothing but waste and debris. "It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot," said Moore. "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."1
The entity Moore had stumbled upon has come to be known by several names: "trash vortex," "plastic soup," the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," and more formally, the "Eastern Garbage Patch." Once estimated to be twice the size of Texas, it is now believed to be double the area of the continental United States. It stretches a huge distance across the ocean, beginning about five hundred miles off the California coast, past Hawaii, and almost as far as Japan. The trash is 80 percent plastic, and there is as much as 100 million tons of it. It cannot be seen from space because the debris sits just below the surface of the water and in some areas extends deep into the water column. For all intents and purposes, it is the world's largest garbage dump and a growing environmental hazard.
Researchers estimate the garbage patch began to form at some point in the 1950s. The trash is kept in a group by underwater currents that swirl it together, solidifying it as an entity. Indeed, the gyre in which the garbage has collected is home to a circular current that normally rounds up flotsam and jetsam in the sea, allowing microorganisms to biodegrade it. But plastic, which takes hundreds of years to decompose, has proven too durable for this process—thus it continues to accumulate in the gyre, swirling and swirling with no end in sight.
Ian Kiernan, an Australian environmentalist who first saw the trash soup on an around-the-world solo yacht race, was sickened by the diversity of items he saw floating on the open sea. "It was just filled with things like furniture, fridges, plastic containers, cigarette lighters, plastic bottles, light globes, televisions and fishing nets,"2 he recalled. Incredibly, objects that are half a century old have been found floating in the garbage patch. This is because "every little piece of plastic manufactured in the past 50 years that made it into the ocean is still out there somewhere,"3 explains chemist Tony Andrady.
While plastic does not biodegrade, it does photodegrade—that is, light from the sun breaks pieces of plastic into smaller and smaller bits, not breaking them down but making them smaller. As the plastic chips break apart or leach, they are eaten or absorbed by marine animals, which the UN Environment Programme says kills more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals every year. There are further consequences for the humans who eat these animals when they are fished and brought to market. The chemicals leached by plastic have been linked to cancer and birth defects, and they have been found to attract other toxins such as hydrocarbons and pesticides. "What goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate," says ocean researcher Marcus Eriksen. "It's that simple."4 Many doubt the garbage patch is able to be cleaned up—its size and location in the water column would hinder most reasonable cleanup efforts. Worse, scientists have warned citizens of all countries that if humans do not cut their use of plastic or practice efforts to recycle plastic and keep it out of the world's oceans, the garbage patch could double in size over the next ten years.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one example of how humans are beginning to see the effects trash has had on the planet. The impact of trash on the oceans is just one of the many issues explored in Introducing Issues with Opposing Viewpoints: Garbage and Recycling. Readers will also consider arguments about whether recycling is cost-effective, whether we are running out of room for garbage, and what role the government should play in guiding Americans' consumption and garbage habits. Readers will examine these questions in the article pairs and form their own opinions on the problem of garbage and the promise of recycling.
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