Last year we at Sketchy Science were fortunate enough to find ourselves on the Hawaiian island of Oahu for 10 days of fun in the sun. We explored every corner of the island looking for fun stories to share and were not disappointed, from extinct volcanic craters, to epic surf, to amazing wildlife, Hawaii proved to be a hot bed (if you’ll pardon the pun) of science gold. However, one of the things we discovered was bigger than all the rest. We never actually saw it because, as you will read, it’s not easily detectable for land-dwellers; but we did spend the better part of 5 hours flying over it.
The Northern Pacific ocean is home to one of humanity’s great shames. Due to the collision of currents and the durability of certain man-made detritus, there now exists a floating patch of garbage twice the size of the continental United States stretching from 500 nautical miles off the California coast nearly to Japan. It goes by several names, but we like to call it Garbage Island.
Garbage Island is a joint creation of human wastefulness and the clockwise-spinning network of currents call the North Pacific Gyre. This massive area in the world’s most massive body of water is an oceanic desert, home to few large fish but brimming with microscopic phytoplankton. The rotating nature of the Gyre causes any drifting material to get caught up in the middle of the ocean for what can turn into an immense amount of time. Fortunately most natural materials break down in a few years. Unfortunately, humans have invented plastics, which basically last forever.
Give anything on Earth enough time and it will eventually find its way into the ocean. That is just how things work. The problem with plastic is that no natural process exists to break it down into simpler compounds. Instead of biodegrading, plastic photodegrades; slowly fracturing into hundreds or thousands of smaller and smaller pieces. These tiny bits of plastic are called nurdles, or (if you are the poetic type) mermaid tears. Roughly 70% of nurdles sink, the rest get caught up in surface currents and float around for an indeterminate amount of time. What this all means is that garbage island isn’t actually an island. It is more of a conceptual blob of sparsely packed filth in a vast expanse of water, which is way less fun.
It may not seem like such a big deal. After all, there isn’t much wildlife in an oceanic desert. Unfortunately, large animals like whales, sea turtles, and birds travel through the North Pacific looking for food. They end up swallowing garbage which clogs up their innards and eventually kills them. If that isn’t enough, there is another indefatigable law of nature: Whatever ends up in the ocean eventually ends up on your plate. As plastics float about, they absorb chemicals like mercury and pesticides like DDT that people continue to dump into the oceans. Those compounds get more and more concentrated as they work their way up the food chain. Humans are at the top of every food chain there is, so this bioaccumulation is bad news for us if we plan to keep eating fish.
This is all pretty upsetting, I am aware. So what can be done to fix it? Fortunately, many countries around the world are taking steps to reduce unnecessary consumption of plastic. You may have noticed that your local grocery store now makes you pay for plastic bags, or, at the very least, encourages you to use reusable ones. Many restaurants are also moving away from plastic forks and knives in favour of metal utensils that are actually capable of spearing and cutting food.
Cleaning up the Pacific is something that we still need to figure out. Collecting billions of tiny pieces of plastic without hauling up a heap of plants and animals along with them is a daunting task. Until engineers solve that problem, we will have to rely on common sense to avoid making the problem worse. Do your part to recycle and to produce as little waste as you can. It’s the least you can do to help eliminate the world’s biggest landfill. At worst, just aim to be better than the countless tourists we encountered on Oahu who watched in stunned disbelief as their air mattresses blew out into the ocean without making the slightest attempt to retrieve them. If a simple lack of idleness isn’t enough for you, grab a snorkel and a biodegradable trash bag, then meet us in Hawaii.