Pacific Trash Vortex Could Signify Future of Our Oceans


The carcass of an albatross on the beach; birds and sea mammals mistake plastics for food then inevitably starve to death. This is the bird's actual gut sample. Photo courtesy Algalita.org.

Traveling the open oceans is not for everyone—sea mist, salt spray, tossing rock-a-bye-baby waves, and Dramamine days. Some people, though, were born for it. Case in point: Captain Charles Moore, third-generation resident of Long Beach, California and founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Now just more than sixty years of age, the weathered seafarer is the principal researcher on the ocean studying the pelagic plastic phenomenon in the Pacific. I recently had the privilege to head out on one of their research trips on behalf of Planet Green to understand the issues that are at hand. http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/02/great_pacific_garbage_patch.phpHead out to the center of the Pacific halfway between Hawaii and California, and you'll see the thin, filmy island of floating trash that is estimated to be double the size of Texas. You don't need to go that far, though, if you want to see trash, as the captain pointed out. It's everywhere. Multiple paths of Ziploc baggies, bottle caps, balloons, pretzel bags, and other debris lead you to the swirling trash vortex like a trail of bread crumbs. In the most polluted areas, the plastic-to-plankton ratio is 48 to 1. It's become part of the oceanic landscape. Net a piece of plastic, and you'll find barnacles and small crabs clinging to it. Not a good thing for fish, birds, and mammals that mistake it for its natural food, such as eggs, jellyfish, or other sea creatures. Most of the plastic will eventually photo-degrade into small, dust-like particles to the point that it will be non-detectable to the human eye, but ingestible by sea mammals, birds, and fish—many of which we then consume ourselves.

One thing the captain said to me really hit home. "I lived in a world that was pre-plastic," he said, turning to face me. "I am the last generation to witness a clean ocean, free from plastic. All succeeding generations will only see an ocean filled with trash."

Damn. I think back to my childhood. Have I really only laid witness to Saran-Wrapped seas and littered beaches?

Back at the Sea Lab I noted some pretty effective ad campaigns hanging up on the walls, labelling the "Non-native Species of the California Coast"--satirical posters with images of a Cola Bass—half-fish half-soda can—and a Cig Egret—an elegant white egret with a cigarette for a bill. They're farcical, but memorable. I spied an actual photo of an albatross, its black oily wings spread out on the rocky beach as if it had been crucified. Its gut was open and neatly filled with plastic—toys, straws, bottle caps, cigarette lighters, plastic bags. I commented how powerful of an ad campaign it was. The lab manager looked puzzled.

"That's not an ad campaign," she said frowning. "That's the actual gut sample."


The Los Angeles Public Works department removes debris caught by booms from the L.A. River after a storm. Photo courtesy Algalita.org.

All that plastic was once hailed as a great technological breakthrough. Remember that famous quote from The Graduate (1967), when Ben (Dustin Hoffman) got an earful of "advice" from his neighbor about how to improve his future?

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you--just one word.

Ben: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Ben: Yes I am.

Mr. McGuire: "Plastics."

Ben: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Ben: Yes I will.

Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That's a deal.

Something tells me the state of the ocean, with this giant trash vortex, is not exactly the "great future" that Mr. McGuire was referring to. Now only time will tell if the technology, the infrastructure to deal with the waste, and behavior such as recycling will catch up with our eagerness to embrace a plastic-wrapped world.

See Also: "Waiter...There's a Fly in My Plastic Soup" and The Great Pacific Garbage Debate: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Stay tuned this summer for more of Summer Rayne's journey to the Pacific Trash Vortex on-air on Planet Green.

Tags: California | Oceans | Plastics | Pollution | Summer Rayne Oakes | Waste