The 8th Continent: Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch

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What can you do about a problem like plastic trash in the ocean?. (Photo: Shane Gross/Shutterstock)

The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch is one of the biggest environmental problems that no one knows about. Right now there is an area larger than the size of the continental United States in the Pacific Ocean between California and Japan that has more plastic in it, by volume, than plankton and other sea life. The swirling ocean currents conspire to aggregate trash that doesn't biodegrade (i.e. plastic) into a giant soupy mass of environmental pain.

I'm a green blogger and make my living staying on top of state of the environment, and the garbage patch has only popped up on my radar in the past year or so. I wrote it about it when I was blogging for and have kept tabs on the slowly growing awareness ever since.

Eco-adventurer David de Rothschild recently set sail from San Francisco on a boat made up entirely of recycled materials, including 20,000 plastic water bottles used for floatation. His plan is to sail through the garbage patch on his way to Sydney to get people to start paying attention to this problem.

Oprah raised the attention bar by featuring a segment on the garbage patch on her Earth Day show.

It's hard to know what to do about it. Plastic doesn't biodegrade and ends up just breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. This plastic dust now greatly outnumbers plankton found in the area and causes massive damage to sea life when they eat it. On top of the microscopic pieces of plastic, the water is also filled with shopping bags, old flip flops, soda bottles and discarded fishing equipment. How do you clean up something on that scale? We can't, at least with current technology.

And unlike a lot of environmental problems, we can't really pin this on any one group, corporation, political party or country. This one belongs to all of us. Plastic is a part of our lives and it's nearly impossible to live without it. There have been advances made in biodegradable plastics and it's entirely possible that we could someday fully make the transition to using them, but that won't change the fact that there are megatons of plastic floating around in the Pacific Ocean.

So what CAN you do? Start looking at plastic with an eye on the future. Find ways of cutting down on the amount that you use. Use cloth shopping bags, choose glass or aluminum containers when you can, and ask yourself a question everytime you go to purchase something that uses plastic: "Do I need this enough to justify this plastic being around FOREVER?".

Some days it's hard to be an environmentalist. Ignorance can be bliss.