Way Out Yonder in the Garbage Patch

August 7, 2009

The BBC News is carrying a story about an expedition to explore, and investigate cleaning up, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  This is an area in the center of the North Pacific Ocean, in the “horse latitudes“, where the prevailing currents and winds tend to make floating debris accumulate.  Over the years, the area has accumulated a huge amount of rubbish, primarily plastic, which is now estimated to cover an area larger than Texas.   Two ships will take part in this expedition, part of Project Kaisei: the New Horizon, from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the Kaisei, which left San Francisco on Tuesday:

Project Kaisei consists of a team of innovators, scientists, environmentalists, ocean lovers, sailors, and sports enthusiasts who have come together with a common purpose. To study the North Pacific Gyre and the marine debris that has collected in this oceanic region, to determine how to capture the debris and to study the possible retrieval and processing techniques that could be potentially employed to detoxify and recycle these materials into diesel fuel.

It will take the Kaisei, a sailing vessel, about five days to reach the area.

The trash that makes up the Plastic Vortex, as the project calls it, comes from waste discarded into streams and rivers that ultimately empty into the Pacific.  Some of it is material accidentally lost overboard from ships.  Given that rubbish is now an international trade commodity (especially hi-tech rubbish), there is a suspicion that some of the trash is the result of deliberate dumping.  Whatever its source, the trash ends up in the North Pacific Gyre (an area analogous to the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic), and is kept there by the pattern of prevailing winds and currents.

It really is about time that we stop regarding the oceans as an infinite repository for our crap.

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