In the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, roughly 1000 miles from the California coast, a convergence of currents has created a landfill of floating plastic estimated to be larger than Texas. Little is known about the area, nicknamed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but two ships launched from San Francisco this week hope to change that. Carrying scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and the Kaisei Project, the month-long expedition aims to explore many of the mysteries – from how much garbage is out there to what impact it is having on fish and wildlife – still surrounding the site.
The North Pacific Gyre is a swirling vortex of currents and high winds. The currents suck garbage into the calm center of the circulation system, like the eye of a hurricane, and trap it there. Decades of non-biodegradable products floating in the ocean gradually get drawn in, the density of trash building over time. While the North Pacific garbage pit is not unique (there are many similar ocean landfills throughout the world), it is thought to be the largest.
It will take the two sailing ships, Kaisei and New Horizon, approximately five days to travel from San Francisco to the garbage gyre. Once there, the scientists will study the composition of debris, test a variety of collection methods, look at the chemical interactions between marine debris in the gyre and fishes and wildlife, and figure out what is necessary for a large scale clean up of the region. The two teams are also interested in potentially capturing the plastic for conversion into diesel fuel.
But Ryan Yerkey, the Kaisei Project’s chief of operations, warned BBC News that even if scientists found a way to collect and recycle the plastic, humans must reinvent their waste disposal system so pelagic pollution doesn’t continue to be a problem. An estimated 60 percent of ocean plastics and other non-biodegradable waste come from land-based sources. “Every piece of trash that is left on a beach or ends up in our rivers or estuaries and washes out to the sea is an addition to the problem,” Yerkey told the BBC. “Twenty years from now we can’t be harvesting the ocean for trash. We need to get it out but we need to also have people make those changes in their lives to stop the problem from growing and hopefully reverse the course.”