Update on Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Last year, we ran a piece on the swirling mass of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean, often called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In his recent story for the Telegraph, Richard Grant provides a more in depth look at this “accidental monument to modern society.” As he explains, the mass of debris was first discovered in 1997 “by a Californian sailor, surfer, volunteer environmentalist and early-retired furniture restorer named Charles Moore, who was heading home with his crew from a sailing race in Hawaii.” Moore was taking a shortcut across the edge of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, “an immense slowly spiralling vortex of warm equatorial air that pulls in winds and turns them gently until they expire.” Sea currents converge in the gyre, collecting much of the flotsam from the Pacific Rim. Though, as Grant writes, “fifty years ago nearly all that flotsam was biodegradable. These days it is 90 per cent plastic.”

“It took us a week to get across and there was always some plastic thing bobbing by,” Moore tells Grant. “It wasn’t a revelation so much as a gradual sinking feeling that something was terribly wrong here. Two years later I went back with a fine-mesh net, and that was the real mind-boggling discovery.” Moore continues, “we found six times more plastic than plankton, and this was just colossal. No one had any idea this was happening, or what it might mean for marine ecosystems, or even where all this stuff was coming from.”

There is an estimated three million tons and growing. As Grant suggests poignantly, “when Leo Baekeland, a Belgian chemist, started tinkering around in his garage in Yonkers, New York, working on the first synthetic polymer, who could have foreseen that a hundred years later plastic would outweigh plankton six-to-one in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?”

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