A Continent of Garbage

If you’ve ever wondered what happens to that plastic bottle you’ve thrown out of your car window, be aware that there’s a chance it may have wound up as part of a new continent in the Pacific Ocean–a continent of garbage.

If by chance you are missing a basketball, you may be glad to know that it has been found in the Pacific Ocean.

It was there along with giant tangles of rope, sunken snack-food bags, a plastic six-pack ring and thousands upon thousands of plastic bags, billowing under the ocean surface like jellyfish.

And that’s not all.

There is a floating garbage dump about the size of Africa created by Pacific currents now carrying refuse from North America, Asia and the islands, concentrating it into a swirl of flotsam estimated to contain 3.5 million tons of junk, 80 percent of which is plastic.

If that wasn’t disgusting enough, this pile of refuse is having some dangerous effects–both known and unknown–on the ecology of the ocean.

But some obvious consequences are known.

Moore and his crew have found jellyfish, fouled and caught in rope. Birds and sea life mistake the plastic for food. Bags that looks like jellyfish could choke turtles. Albatross chicks have been killed by a diet of plastic bits.

And then there’s the question of what happens when the plastic breaks down even further.

“The bigger chips turn to smaller chips,” Moore explained. “And we eventually get dust. Our concern is that this dust then goes to the molecular level and invades the entire food web in the ocean.”

I don’t have any policy advice to offer regarding this situation–this is well beyond my expertise, but it strikes me that this is a problem that needs a solution.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Environment,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. John425 says:

    Unrelated, but…

    Just heard of the beginnings of a movement to spread the word for all participating athletes to wear an armband (possibly black) in the Grand March opening of the Games to protest China’s Human Rights abuses. That would be one heck of a sight and a powerful message.

    Pass it on.

  2. Michael says:

    Unrelated, but…

    Then don’t post it. If you want James to write an article about it, send him a reference, but don’t spam unrelated articles.

    I don’t have any policy advice to offer regarding this situation—this is well beyond my expertise, but it strikes me that this is a problem that needs a solution.

    If it’s mostly plastic, perhaps there is money to be made collecting it for recycling? I can imagine a fleet of fishing-trawlers scooping it up, maybe depositing it into a near-by oil tanker, which takes the many tons of plastic to a port-side recycling center. 2.8 million tons of plastic should bring in some money.

  3. Hoodlumman says:

    Every time I read about this topic, the size of mass gets bigger.

    I’m dead serious – the first time I read about it, the size of mass was claimed to be the size of California. The next time it was the Continental U.S. Now it’s Africa. I wish I had saved the links.

    I’m not downplaying how crappy this issue is, but it seems it’s size is growing exponentially by the article.

  4. William d'Inger says:

    I have been reading about the garbage continent in the North Pacific Gyre for years. The issue seems to revolve around a lone crusader by the name of Charles Moore and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation he founded to study the problem. As best as I can determine, all data on the subject comes from this one source no matter whether it’s released by the UN or any of the many eco-nut organizations. Of course, the liberal media jumps all over stories that reinforce their pre-conceived socio-political notions.

    Algalita is hardly an unbiased source. It has a vested interest in there being a problem. Indeed, it exists only to study the problem. That makes me very skeptical about the whole deal.

    I don’t know the true extent of the problem, but I would feel a lot more satisfied if it would be verified by several independent researchers having no cultural axes to grind.

  5. Bithead says:

    Every time I read about this topic, the size of mass gets bigger

    Kinda like Global warming there for a while, huh?

  6. Mark Jaquith says:

    Calling it a “continent” is hyperbole (not accusing you, Alex — accusing the people who started this meme), as it suggests that it is a contiguous (or mostly contiguous) mass. It’s not. As they say, “pictures, or it didn’t happen.” That’s not to say that increased garbage density isn’t a problem… it’s just not a flippin’ “continent” or “island.” Those are terms invented by scientists who feel their work is under-appreciated.

  7. Steve Plunk says:

    Where’s this continent on Google map? Should we refer to it as the continent of hyperbole? How about Exageraisa?

    For years flotsam washed up on to the shores of the Pacific Northwest and accumulated on the beaches where it sits today. It’s called driftwood. There are no piles of plastic however.

    I do suspect this “scientist” is bit kooky.

  8. Grewgills says:

    The N Pac Gyre has been an aggregater of flotsam for as long as it has existed. It is no surprise that less degradable positively buoyant trash would build up there over time.
    Google earth images, even if they bothered to do higher res images of the oceans would not be of much utility here. Most of the garbage is quite small (partially degraded) and much is near neutrally buoyant and so it is difficult to see from aerial photos. Some satellite imagery should be able to pick it up, but it wouldn’t seem like much in a normal true color picture.
    The mass is in international waters, is composed of international rubbish, and it would be near impossible to determine who dumped it. Most of the rubbish is partially degraded, so relatively small and delicate, making large scale trawling difficult and virtually all of the rubbish will have algae and/or bacteria growing on it and so would be difficult to recycle. This means that unless someone comes up with a very creative and elegant solution it will be a very expensive operation with little or no short-term financial payback, which in turn means that nothing of substasnce is likely to be done about it any time soon.

  9. floyd says:

    Not to support ocean dumping, ONLY to give perspective….3.5 million tons equals about 2000 river barges,or 4.6 million cubic yards, or 1.5 square miles 3 ft deep, or 1/1200th of a cubic mile,hardly a continent!
    Perhaps one small “fecal mass” in the punch bowl is too many,but hyperbole reduces credibility.

  10. Bithead says:

    Perhaps one small “fecal mass” in the punch bowl is too many,but hyperbole reduces credibility.

    But…But…But… You don’t underSTAND… Without THAT, we won’t be able to to do anything for the KIDS….

    Seems to me your point about fecal mass is an apt description of the whole matter. The ‘crisis’ metality being attached to this stuff does have a rather fecal -like quality to it.

  11. Sam says:

    My first reaction was that “dilute and disperse” wasn’t working too well, but then…

    3.5 million tons over an area the size of Africa is a areal density of about 0.12 grams/m^2. What are the error bars on their estimate?

    Another perspective: the US generates about 250 million tons of garbage/year.