Skip to main content

Out in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, hundreds of kilometres from land, Captain Charles Moore stood at the bow of his 50-foot catamaran and looked toward the horizon. But instead of gliding along calm, sapphire-coloured waters glistening in the afternoon sun, his aluminum-hulled Alguita carved through a sea of shiny, modern-day refuse.

For days on end, it was plastic, plastic, everywhere.

That was nearly 11 years ago. Capt. Moore was returning to his home in Southern California from a sailing race in Hawaii.

Story continues below advertisement

With some time to spare that Aug. 3, 1997, he decided to take a slightly longer route home, one that would see him sail through a stretch of ocean historically avoided by even the most weathered sailors. The 26-million-square-kilometre area known as the North Pacific Gyre is essentially free of wind - a kind of ocean desert - and its slow-moving, clockwise vortex of water is nearly impossible to plow through.

What he discovered at the heart of the deep swirls were miles upon miles of water bottles, plastic tarpaulins, dolls and furniture that have been collecting there for as long as 60 years.

This plastic soup, with billions of tiny shards of the synthetic material floating just below the surface of the water, is estimated to span an area 1½ times the size of the continental United States.

Alarming new data collected during Capt. Moore's most recent voyage to the gyre's centre in February shows the girth of the so-called Eastern Garbage Patch "dramatically increasing."

The United Nations estimates that each square kilometre of ocean carries 13,000 pieces of debris, but this area in the north Pacific has something like 330,000 pieces per square kilometre.

Now, armed with proof that the plastic is making its way into the human food chain, experts warn the existence of the garbage patch and its far-reaching implications could be just as imminent as the worldwide food shortage and the effects of global warming.

What makes plastic so functional - its durability - is precisely what makes it so dangerous. It does not biodegrade, but rather cracks into smaller and smaller pieces as it is exposed to sunlight and thrashing waves.

Story continues below advertisement

Greenpeace estimates that one-fifth of the plastic is dumped off ships or accidentally lost off cargo boats (like the container headed to Tacoma, Wash., from Hong Kong in 1992 that spilled about 29,000 rubber ducks overboard, or the 61,000 pairs of Nike shoes that were knocked into the ocean in 1990).

The rest comes from land: the Asian Pacific Rim and North America. A plastic bottle discarded on the ground can easily make its way into a municipal water system, which ultimately leads to the ocean, said Capt. Moore, 60, who established the non-profit Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

For years, he and his crew theorized that the sea of plastic that lies between Hawaii and California was much more than just an eyesore and that fish may be ingesting broken-down bits, mistaking them for food.

Now, having just returned from a month-long voyage out to the gyre's so-called cemetery, Capt. Moore holds the evidence in his hands.

Hundreds of myctophids, or lantern fish, were collected during the excursion. All of them had dozens of bits of broken plastic in their stomachs. Some pieces were five millimetres in diameter, much too large to pass through the systems of the tiny creatures.

Lantern fish spend their days deep in the ocean, away from sunlight, and scurry to the surface at night to feed on plankton.

Story continues below advertisement

"They have to feed very quickly because they have to start their trip back down again," Capt. Moore said. "So they're gobbling up a lot of food, they're frantic and they're being fooled."

They are the most plentiful fish in the ocean, making up about 90 per cent of all deep-sea fish, he said. They are a major source of food for larger fish, such as tuna, and other marine creatures, including dolphins, whales and sharks.

With the amount of plastic in that part of the ocean outweighing plankton six to one, the effects have been deadly.

Further complicating the problem, hundreds of millions of tiny plastic pellets, or nurdles - the raw materials the plastic industry uses in its manufacturing process - are lost or spilled every year.

The bits act like chemical sponges, absorbing up to a million times the toxic pollutants found in sea water. The plastic flakes are essentially poison pills for fish, Capt. Moore said.

The United Nations Environment Program says plastic accounts for the deaths of more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals every year. Countless fish, it says, die either from mistakenly eating the plastic or from becoming entangled in it and drowning.

Seabird species also dying in scores include albatrosses and fulmars.

A Dutch study of fulmars in the North Sea found 95 per cent had plastic in their stomachs. More than 1,600 pieces of plastic were found in the stomach of a bird in Belgium.

In a stark image of the durability of plastic, one piece found in the stomach of an albatross last year bore a serial number that was traced to a Second World War seaplane shot down in 1944.

Carl Safina is a biologist, conservationist and prize-winning author of three books about the rising impact of humans on oceans that were once presumed boundless. He has been researching the effects of plastic washing ashore, and the impact on seabirds.

"We're talking about some of the most remote islands on Earth, like Laysan Island, about 1,000 miles [1,600 kilometres] west of Honolulu. Large parts of that island's shoreline look like garbage dumps from all of the plastic that has washed ashore. These are almost inaccessible locations, but our trash gets there much more easily than we do."

Dr. Safina, who is also president and co-founder of the New York-based Blue Ocean Institute, has seen the deadly effects of plastic on the albatross, which spends six months raising a single chick.

The parents go on foraging trips as long as 12,800 kilometres, which can take upward of three weeks. They feed their chicks and immediately leave again to search for food, he said.

"There's almost nothing else I can think of where the parents work so hard, so exhaustively, for so long to raise the next generation. And then you see the chick that's five, 5½ months old, almost ready to fly, but it's dead. And the carcass is starting to rot, and right through the rib cage you see that this bird - that is on an island in the middle of the ocean - is packed with cigarette lighters."

Smaller pieces of plastic resemble fish eggs to the birds, while the larger pieces, like toothbrushes and toy soldiers, look like rocks that they often swallow to help grind up their food.

"That just shows a world that has really gone out of balance," Dr. Safina said.

"It shows a way of thinking that assumes that the world is an infinite place, that we will never run out of stuff and we can throw things out endlessly. ... The new reality is that the world is now full."

Diane Lake, a spokeswoman with the Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said that while the ministry is aware of the North Pacific Gyre, it is conducting no real research on the extent or effects of the plastic pollution.

While some environmentalists have argued that enough plastic has been produced that no more would ever be required if we could recycle it better, Cathy Cirko, of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, says there is good reason for more plastic being made today. "Certainly, we don't like to see plastics in our oceans. We don't like to see them littered on the ground. We find it quite deplorable. But it's a fairly complex issue," she said.

One reason plastic is ubiquitous, according to Ms. Cirko, vice-president of environment and plastics at the association, is that plastic is the most efficient and versatile form of packaging.

"You can deliver more volume per kilogram of material than you can with other materials."

Another reason is its ability to meet technical requirements to advance the way people live, she said, giving the example of pills being packaged in individual plastic bubbles for safety, or the availability of berries from Argentina year-round because of the durable plastic cases in which they are shipped.

"Also, demographically, we're a country of smaller households," Ms. Cirko said. "When you get into families of one and two, you get into portion packaging and servings for one person that in the end use more packaging."

Capt. Moore said a cleanup is nearly impossible because so much of the plastic is broken down.

"It's not going to be as landsmen imagine, an operation with a tractor scraping the beach with a beach rake. The corresponding operation in the ocean wouldn't be successful. It would need to be highly targeted, you wouldn't cover much ground and it would just be removing the tip of the iceberg.

"You would never get to the bottom of the iceberg."

WAYS TO REDUCE WASTE

Toronto-based filmmaker Ian Connache has been to the North Pacific Gyre twice. He said he was disgusted with what he saw.

"We can't clean it up. It's too big and too broad. Simply put, we have to stop putting the stuff into the ocean."

Mr. Connacher suggests some ways to do this:

Bioplastic

(plastic made from plants)

Some companies add petroleum ingredients to improve durability, others have an organic starch plastic that degrades in water and is edible. Researchers have made plastic from chicken feathers, orange peels and carbon dioxide. But bioplastics require specialized composting infrastructure.

Second-hand uses

A company in Delhi turns plastic bags into shoes and jewellery.

In northern Kenya, another producer turns flip-flops into toys.

plastics into energy

Through the process of pyrolysis, plastic molecules can be broken down and reverted back to oil or natural gas.

Better recycling practices

The U.S. produces 100 billion pounds of plastic a year, recycling only 5 per cent, says the Environmental Protection Agency. Canadian statistics weren't available.

Conscious consumerism

Use canvas shopping bags and reusable coffee mugs.

Unnati Gandhi

The durability of plastic

Plastic is perhaps the most ubiquitous and versatile material ever invented. Even in the ocean, that presence is evident in the form of everyday objects idly floating around.

These are just some of the items Captain Charles Moore and his crew from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation have fished out of the water during their expeditions:

A trail of Taco Bell wrappers

Dolls and action figures

Umbrellas

Tarps

Bottles

Tofu containers

Lego

Grocery bags

Foam coffee cups

Checkers

Furniture

Toothbrushes

Cigarette lighters

Syringes

Rubber ducks

Basketball shoes

Oceanic garbage dump

North Pacific currents have a tendency to draw debris into two enormous reservoirs. Combined, they are estimated to be larger than the

continental United States and to contain 100 million tonnes of plastic waste, some of it intact, some widely dispersed as microscopic toxic pellets

CAUGHT IN A VORTEX

Historically, the so-called "horse latitudes" were torpid zones where seaweed formed huge carpets and fishing was relatively scarce.

The smaller Western Garbage Patch circulates counter-clockwise off the coast of Japan.

A VULNERABLE FOOD CHAIN

Albatross can mistake floating debris for food, while smaller particles closely resemble zooplankton and enter the ocean food chain when they are eaten by jellyfish

The Eastern Garbage Patch contains estimated plastic concentrations of 5.1 kilograms per square kilometre, six times the concentrations of zooplankton.

Salp

(these filter feeders are plentiful in the garbage sinks

Most of the plastic debris floats below the surface at depths of up to 10 metres.

DEAN TWEED/THE GLOBE AND MAIL; GRAPHIC NEWS ; SOURCE: AGALITA MARINE RESEARCH FOUNDATION, GREENPEACE

Report an error Licensing Options
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨