Halfway between here and Hawaii, there's a gigantic vortex of plastic debris swirling in the ocean, estimated to be twice the size of Texas. I started hearing a lot about it this week, because there are two different expeditions that shoved off in the last few days with the goal of studying it, and possibly even ... well, recycling it by building a floating plant of some sort out there.
Before we get to that, a little background. The Wikipedia entry called "the Great Pacific Garbage Patch" gives us a pretty good idea what's out there:
The garbage patch occupies a large and relatively stationary region of the North Pacific Ocean bound by the North Pacific Gyre (a remote area commonly referred to as the horse latitudes). The rotational pattern created by the North Pacific Gyre draws in waste material from across the North Pacific Ocean, including the coastal waters off North America and Japan. As material is captured in the currents, wind-driven surface currents gradually move floating debris toward the center, trapping it in the region.
The size of the affected region is unknown, as large items readily visible from the deck of a boat are few and far between. Most of the debris consists of small plastic particles suspended at or just below the water surface, making it impossible to detect by aircraft or satellite images.
Estimates on size range from 700,000 km² to more than 15 million km², (0.41% to 8.1% of the size of the Pacific Ocean). The area may contain over 100 million tons of debris.
It has also been suggested that the patch may represent two areas of debris that are linked."
It's kind of unbelievable, really. This story hit the mainstream when Oprah did a show on it with Jacques Cousteau. A story I'm looking at right now on another research vessel says plastic molecules in the water outnumber plankton now, 6 to 1: "The fish and the birds continue to feed as they always have, but now the food is much different. Now the food is toxic. The plastics we set adrift upon our oceans are actually bio-toxin accumulators. The Alguita could find no area of the gyre unaffected by the plague of plastic. They found plastic debris everywhere they went. The world, in all its vastness, is not big enough to get away from the pollutants of man."
So how awful is this picture posted along with that information?
Of course I'm skeptical -- that's what I do, be skeptical -- but think about where all this plastic that's manufactured and "thrown away" goes. Then consider this story in the New York Times about the vortex -- they call it the "planet's largest known floating garbage dump" and call the mission to study it a joint endeavor with environmentalists and .. Deutche Bank?
Mary Crowley, co-founder of the project, said examining the dump's potential as recycled material is just as important as studying the decomposed and decomposing plastic, which largely originated in California and Japan before being trapped by currents of the North Pacific Gyre.
"The missing link is how can you capture the plastic, since it's spread out over such a large area," Crowley said from the ship's deck here several days before its departure. "The key realization here is that the plastics might have a value, a recycled value, which is a very exciting deal."
Well, so much for being skeptical. If a bank is involved and offering financial backing, the plastic must be there -- and there must be a lot of it. For now, it's like a new gold rush, but this time they're heading so far west they're kind of almost -- east.
The alliance between a group of activists who want to see the trash heap cleared and the corporate recycling world is no accident. Doug Woodring, a technology entrepreneur and former Merrill Lynch financier turned co-founder of Project Kaisei, said the marriage of commercial interests and environmental is key to the research mission's success.
"Anything that we're promoting is going to come back to expanded recycling programs," Woodring said. "If we're right, everyone who's in the recycling business will benefit."
I hope the joint expedition finds that there is money to be made, so they can get to work getting some of this junk out of the ocean. It reminds me of a story I did a long time ago about a trash dump in a canyon right across from the ocean. The wind would come howling down the canyon, through the dump, and plastic bags like parachutes would float over the freeway and land on the beach. So would phone bills, divorce papers, tax forms -- you name it. Residents on the beach had collected the most sensitive documents they'd "received" and shared them with reporters. I knocked on one guy's door 20 miles away, and handed him some raggedy pay stubs and medical reports with his name and address on them. Hi, shredder anyone? But you could have knocked him over with a feather. "I threw those away!"
Again, I want to know ... where IS this place, "away?" And why do we keep throwing things at it?