60-Second Earth

The Great Garbage Patch

Much of our plastic ends up floating in the North Pacific

[Below is the original script. But a few changes may have been made during the recording of this audio podcast.]

In 1997 Captain Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, set sail from Hawaii and discovered, in a remote part of the North Pacific, an island…made of plastic.

Moore measured about 300,000 tiny pieces of plastic per square kilometer back then, but a decade later there are approximately 2.3 million pieces of plastic per square kilometer. What is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now the size of the United States, according to Moore. 

Wind and ocean currents sweep up this garbage and deposit it in this slow-moving gyre.

The plastic never degrades, but sunlight and wave friction break it into tiny particles, smaller than five millimeters, that remain suspended in the water. Holly Bamford, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says it’s likely that filter feeders like clams or jellyfish are eating the plastic, which may prove dangerous all the way up the food chain. Ongoing studies will try to determine the patch's impact.

Getting rid of it is nearly impossible, because we lack the technology to separate microplastic from biologically important plankton, like algae. So Bamford says to focus on prevention.

The best bet to keep the plastic patch from growing is to reduce our dependence on plastic in the first place as well as reuse and recycle the plastics we can't replace.

—Christie Nicholson

60-Second Earth is a weekly podcast from Scientific American. Subscribe to this Podcast: RSS | iTunes

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