CHARLES MOORE Santa Barbara News – Press 27 oct 02

An albatross carcass shows how much plastic the great birds can ingest from the Pacific Ocean.

There is a large part of the central Pacific Ocean that no one ever visits and only a few ever pass through. Sailors avoid it like the plague for it lacks the wind they need to sail Fishermen leave it alone because its lack of nutrients makes it an oceanic desert.

This area includes the “horse latitudes, ” where stock transporters in the age of sail got stuck, ran out of food and water, and had to jettison their horses and other livestock Surprisingly, this is the largest ocean realm on our planet, being about the size of Africa—over 10 million square miles.

A huge mountain of air, which has been heated at the equator, and then begins descending in a gentle clockwise rotation as it approaches the North Pole, creates this ocean realm.

The circular winds produce circular ocean currents that spiral into a center where there is a slight down-welling Scientists know this atmospheric phenomenon as the subtropical high, and the ocean current it creates as the north Pacific central or sub-tropical gyre.

Because of the stability of this gentle maelstrom, the largest uniform climatic feature on Earth is also an accumulator of the debris of civilization. Anything that floats, no matter where it comes from on the north Pacific Rim or ocean, ends up here, sometimes after drifting around the periphery for 12 years or more.

Historically, this debris did not accumulate because it was eventually broken down by microorganisms into carbon dioxide and water. Now, however, in our battle to store goods against natural deterioration, we have created a class of products that defeats even the most creative and insidious bacteria. They are plastics.

Plastics are now virtually everywhere in our modern society. We drink out of them, eat off of them, sit on them – even drive in them. They’re durable, lightweight, cheap and can be made into virtually anything But it is these useful properties of plastics that make them so harmful when they end up in the environment

Plastics, like diamonds, are forever.

If plastic doesn’t biodegrade, what does it do? It photo-degrades – a process in which it is broken down by sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces, all of which are still plastic polymers, eventually becoming individual molecules of plastic, still too tough for anything to digest.

For the last 50-odd years, every piece of plastic that has made it from our shores to the Pacific Ocean has been breaking down and accumulating in the central Pacific gyre. Oceanographers like Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the world’s leading flotsam expert, refer to it as the great Pacific Garbage Patch.

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Tags: Plastic in the News · Plastic Is Forever

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