The Trash Vortex: A modern day sea monster


A giant ocean vortex twice the size of Texas sucking in small plants, animals and garbage may sound like something in a science fiction movie, but the “Pacific Trash Vortex” also known as the “Pacific Garbage Patch” is real. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean at about 155 degrees West, 42 degrees North, there is a giant swirling mass of garbage. The mass of plastic debris that would qualify as the world’s largest trash dump illustrates the growing problem of plastic debris build up (“The Trash Vortex, 2011, para. 1-3). The world recordd-setting ocean rower Roz Savage talked about the trash vortex in her lecture “The Human Condition: An Ocean Rower’s Perspective.” During her voyage across the Pacific Ocean, Savage rowed through the North Pacific Garbage Patch. Savage said, “It is heartbreaking to see a plastic bottle floating on the water. This evidence of our carelessness is especially jarring” (Savage, 2013).

Charles Moore originally discovered the Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997. Moore was sailing from Los Angles to Hawaii in the Transpacific Yachting Race. In the middle of the race, Moore noticed a patch in the middle of the ocean where millions of pieces of plastic garbage were bonding together (“Great Pacific,” 2011, para. 5). Moore described the patch as “like a soup of confetti-sized plastic bits, produced by the runoff of our throwaway lifestyle that has made its way into our oceans” (Cho, 2011, Para. 3). Climatologists and oceanographers predicted the patch in the early 1980's, but they underestimated the size of mass (“Great Pacific,” 2011, para. 6).

According to National Geographic, the vortex was created when large amounts of debris met an ocean gyre. A gyre “is a circular ocean current formed by the Earth’s wind patterns and the forces created by the rotation of the planet” (“Great Pacific,” 2011, para. 3). The spiral motion of the gyre pulls debris in where it eventually builds up at the center (“Great Pacific,” 2011, para. 3). Most oceans have these patches where debris builds up in the center of gyres, but the Pacific’s Trash Vortex is larger than most because the debris in the pacific is not biodegradable (“Trash Vortex,” 2011, para.1). The main material that makes up the Pacific Garbage Patch is plastic.

Trash ranging from light bulbs to traffic cones can be found in the ocean, but the most common is household plastic. Plastic products unlike other forms of garbage are made to be durable and to last for a long time. Products such as soda bottles and grocery bags are made to be disposable. These products find their way into the ocean and do not completely breakdown from exposure to the sun and saltwater like other materials. They are broken up into small pieces that can float along the ocean surface and take up to 100 years to completely disintegrate (Howsaw, 2009, para. 5).

“Around 100 million tons of plastic are produced each year of which about 10 percent ends up in the sea” (“The Trash Vortex,” 2011, para. 3). Plastic was not commonly used until the 1940s. Today it is one of the most widely used materials and can be found in countless products (Johnston, 2012, para 1-3). In 2006, the US produced 113 billion pounds of plastic according to the American Chemistry Council (Satariano, 2008, para. 15). According to Vice President of the Council Sharon Kneiss, “There is no correlation between plastic production and marine debris”. She said plastic doesn’t belong in the ocean it belongs in recycling bins (Satariano, 2008, para. 17).

Over the last 40 years the amount of plastic debris in the world’s oceans has increased 1000 percent (Johnston, 2012, para.1). According to Green Peace, “A single one litre bottle could break down into enough small fragments to put one on every mile of beach in the entire world” (“The Trash Vortex,” 2011, para. 5). These fragments may seem small in comparison to size of ocean, but collectively they are negatively effecting the environment.

Marine debris worldwide kills more than one million sea birds and 100,000 mammals each year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (Satariano, 2008, para. 5).

Harmful chemicals like the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and the chemical used to make electrical circuits polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) cannot be dissolved into saltwater, but pieces of plastic can contain these chemicals (Satariano, 2008, para. 6).

Many sea creatures eat these fragments. After digesting these toxic chemicals a large percentage of sea life dies. (Hosaw, 2009, para.7). Other animals including human beings who eat these fish can also absorb these harmful chemicals. (Hosaw, 2009, para. 8). One rainbow fish collected by the nonprofit organization Oceana had 84 pieces of plastic in its stomach (Hosaw, 2009, para. 17).

The plastic debris also kills plankton. Without plankton oxygen levels in the ocean decrease, killing plants and wildlife. Plastic debris and entangled wildlife can wash up on the beaches of coastal cities. These unsightly images would reduce an area’s attractiveness to residents and tourists. It can also cost local municipalities hundreds of thousands of dollars for beach cleanup (“Marine Debris,” 2011, para. 8).

"We can't clean it up. It's just too big. You'd have to have the entire U.S. Navy out there, round the clock, continuously towing little nets. And it's produced so fast, they wouldn't be able to keep up," oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer said (Johnston, 2012, para. 16). While it is difficult to clean up the current ocean debris, there are many ways people can prevent future buildup.

Roz Savage said one of the best ways to decrease ocean debris is “Refuse, repurpose, reduce, re-use, recycle, but of these the greatest is refuse. Just say NO to plastic.” (Savage, 2012, para. 6). In her lecture Savage stressed reducing overall consumption, “Most products are wrapped in plastic packaging.” Just by reducing overall consumption will reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean (Savage, 2012, para. 7). Green Peace suggests that the best way to reduce plastic ocean debris is to properly dispose of plastic products by recycling and reusing these materials. (“The Trash Vortex,” 2011, para. 12)

As for the Pacific Trash Vortex, no country has taken responsibility since it is located in international waters between Japan and the United States (“Great Pacific,” 2011, para. 12). Films such as Bag It and Plastic Shores have been made to raise awareness about the growing problem of plastic ocean debris (Savage, 2012, para. 8). Many NGOs such as Oceana, Green Peace and the Plastics Ocean Foundation are currently lobbying the US government to reduce plastic ocean debris, but no federal legislation has been passed (Savage, 2012, para. 9). In February 2013, a bill was introduced to the California State Assembly that would “aim to clean up marine debris and shift the cost of controlling pollution to the manufacturers who produce it.” Currently, the bill is still under review by the assembly. (Brennan, 2013, para. 1).

The Pacific Trash Vortex is a “visible impact that humans have had on the ocean.” (Saveage, 2012, para. 2). Plastic ocean debris buildup is a growing problem. Plastics products make life easier and more convenient, but this convenience comes at a price. Plastic ocean debris is killing sea life and washing up on beaches. If plastic is not properly recycled it can end up in landfills or the ocean, where it will take nearly one hundred years to break down. At the end of her lecture, Roz Savage emphasized that a single person can have a difference on the environment (Savage, 2013). She said, “We cannot have a healthy planet – or healthy bodies – if we don’t have healthy oceans” (Savage, 2012, para, 4).