Where Plastic Bags Go To Die

Tracking the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’

Millions of pounds of our annual PET waste ends up in landfills. Much of it, however, finds it way through drains, into sewers and then into our oceans. A giant floating island of debris and waste twice the size of the state of Texas (roughly 80% of it made up of plastic bags) is being tracked by marine biologists drifting somewhere between San Francisco and Hawaii. Known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch,’ the mass of waste continues to grow, with circular currents and winds serving as the perfect conditions to trap debris.

In his piece in the SF Chronicle , detailing this ‘floating continent of trash,’ Justin Berton explains that scientists have been tracking the ‘Garbage Patch’ for ten years. “With the winds blowing in and the currents in the gyre going circular, it’s the perfect environment for trapping,” says one official. The patch has been growing, along with ocean debris worldwide, tenfold every decade since the 1950s, said Chris Parry, public education program manager with the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco. The report found that 80 percent of the oceans’ litter originated on land. While ships drop the occasional load of shoes or hockey gloves into the waters (sometimes on purpose and illegally), the vast majority of sea garbage begins its journey as onshore trash.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is particularly dangerous for birds and marine life, said Warner Chabot, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy. Sea turtles mistake clear plastic bags for jellyfish. Birds swoop down and swallow indigestible shards of plastic. The petroleum-based plastics take decades to break down, and as long as they float on the ocean’s surface, they can appear as feeding grounds. “These animals die because the plastic eventually fills their stomachs,” Chabot said. “It doesn’t pass, and they literally starve to death.” Check out Berton’s piece for more alarming details.

  • Tags: Facts & Figures, Misc., Waste

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