Hidden, a 3.5 Million Trash Heap Lies in the Ocean

The world's largest trash dump doesn't sit on some barren field outside an urban center. It resides thousands of miles from any land — in the Pacific Ocean.

Bottle caps, soap bottles, laundry baskets and shards of plastic are just a few things that float in the ocean's vastness. Known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the "dump" is composed mainly of plastic, which isn't biodegradable.

Instead, the plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces in the patch that extends thousands of miles, from California's coast to China.

Charles Moore, who discovered the trash heap by accident in 1997 when he was sailing the Pacific, collects samples of the growing garbage bin. Some of his samples have contained six times more plastic than plankton.

"It is like a minestrone and ... a lot of the vegetables are plastic," said Moore, who stages regular trips to the garbage patch for research.

A series of currents in the Pacific Ocean create a circular effect that pulls debris from North America, Asia and the Hawaiian Islands into a toxic stew. Then it shoots it into a graveyard of 3.5 million tons of trash that's 80 percent plastic.

Moore said he has noticed an alarming trend. The quantities have increased dramatically — more than doubling in five years. And Moore said there is no reason to believe the trend will slow.

And the plastic isn't just floating around in the ocean; new evidence suggests it is making its way into wildlife.

"I found 26 pieces of plastic, all different colors inside one stomach," said marine researcher Christiana Boerger.

Birds also are making a meal of the plastic, and large quantities have been found in their stomachs.

But the biggest debate surrounding the patch isn't its existence or its environmental impact, but rather how to clean it up.

"The experts say there is no silver bullet. We are going to keep looking, but at the moment it is not clear what the best course of action would be to deal with the materials that are already there," said Steve Russell of the American Chemical Council.

Moore, the patch's discoverer, said it's virtually impossible to clean it up. He said that stopping it from growing may be the best approach, which also may prevent other ocean dumps from forming.

Beach cleanups and improved recycling could help.

"The planet is a closed system. So everything that happens on Earth stays on Earth," said Steve Fleischl, president of the Waterkeeper Alliance . "What we need to do is to accept responsibility at the local level and rescue the amount of plastic that comes down our waterways and into our ocean."

Check out the links below for more information on the garbage patch and ocean conservation.

Marine Research Foundation

Ocean Conservancy

Waterkeeper Alliance

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