The Pacific Isn't the Only Ocean Turning into a Trash Heap
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When Sylvia Earle began diving in 1952, the ocean was pristine. These days, things are different. "For the past 30 years I have never been on a dive anytime, anywhere, from the surface to 2-1/2 miles deep, without seeing a piece of trash," says the renowned oceanographer and former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "There's life from the surface to the greatest depths -- and there's also trash from the surface to the greatest depths."
Dr. Earle's experience illustrates the rising tide of plastic accumulating in the world's oceans. And while the Pacific Ocean has garnered much attention for what some call the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" -- a vast expanse of floating plastic deposited in the middle of the ocean by circulating currents -- the problem doesn't stop there.
New research shows that plastic has collected in a region of the Atlantic as well, held hostage by converging currents, called gyres, to form a swirling "plastic soup." And those fragments of plastic could also be present at the other three large gyres in the world's oceans, says Kara Lavender Law, a member of the oceanography faculty at the Sea Education Association (SEA) in Woods Hole, Mass., which conducted the study.
Because the plastic has broken down into tiny pieces, it is virtually impossible to recover, meaning that it has essentially become a permanent part of the ecosystem. The full impact of its presence there -- what happens if fish and other marine animals eat the plastic, which attracts toxins that could enter the food chain -- is still unclear.
"It's a serious environmental problem from a lot of standpoints," Dr. Law says. "There are impacts on the ecosystem from seabirds, fish, and turtles, down to microscopic plankton."
The possible effect on humans is "a huge open question," she adds. "If a marine organism were to ingest a contaminated plastic article, it could move up the food chain. But that is far from proven."
The data collected by SEA, from 22 years of sailing through the North Atlantic and Caribbean, show a high concentration of plastic fragments centered about 30 degrees north latitude (in the western North Atlantic), says Law. That aligns with the ocean's circular current pattern.
But don't call this region the garbage patch of the Atlantic. Law, who has sailed through the plastic accumulation in the Pacific gyre as well, says the term "plastic soup" is more accurate for both areas. "There's no large patch, no solid mass of material," she says.
Marcus Eriksen, director of education at Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, Calif., agrees.
The idea of a garbage "patch" or "island" twice the size of Texas, a favorite term in the media for the now-infamous spot in the Pacific, feeds misconceptions, he says. "It's much worse. If it were an island, we could go get it. But we can't," because it's a "thin soup of plastic fragments."
The plastic floating in the ocean comes mostly from land. Dumping plastic at sea has been prohibited by an international convention since 1988, but about 80 percent of the plastic in the ocean flows from rivers, is washed out from storm drains or sewage overflows, or is blown out to sea from shore by the wind.
According to the UN Environment Program, the world produces 225 million tons of plastic every year.
Law says that analyses of the density of the plastics picked up in SEA's research show that much of it potentially comes from consumer items made of polyethylene and polypropylene plastics, which includes plastic shopping bags, milk jugs, detergent bottles, and other items "common in our everyday lives."