Landfill in the Sea

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.

Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, is an independently wealthy man who decided to spend his life studying the ocean. Ten years ago he was credited with discovering The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the oceanic dump of the Pacific Rim.

His organization is dedicated to restoring the marine environment. Among the many items he has pulled out of the water include: melted milk crates, a suitcase, fistfuls of toothbrushes, golf balls, glue sticks and brightly colored plastic umbrella handles.

"They are throwaway products," Moore said. "They are cheap now. An umbrella used to be something you might keep for a lifetime. Now an umbrella is for one storm."

Moore has focused his study on an area of the garbage patch that is twice the size of Texas, about a thousand miles from North America near the Hawaiian islands.

Plastic Soup

Sailing his research catamaran named the Alguita, Moore and a small crew drag a trawling device through the garbage patch to study the content of ocean water.

They find what he describes as a "plastic soup." In some cases there is more plastic in the waters than plankton, the basic food organism of the ocean.

"It has some zooplankton. But overwhelmingly what we're seeing here are plastic particles," Moore said. "The ocean has become a plastic soup. This is the soup."

The problem with plastic in particular is that it doesn't quite float, and doesn't sink either. Sunlight and salt water slowly break it down until bags become shreds, and hard plastic breaks down into multi-colored chips.

"This is the new beach sand that we've seeing throughout the pacific islands," Moore said. "It's a sand made of plastic."

Mixed in with the plastic sand is a tiny bit of sand of volcanic origin and coral.

"Formerly we got sand by breaking down rock and coral. Now we're getting sand by breaking down plastic," he said.

Some of it comes from ships, some from fishing floats, and more still from Styrofoam buoys. But the majority of plastic garbage in the ocean comes from land: bottles and cups dropped in the street and washed by rain into the storm sewer, into the rivers and eventually into the ocean.

Ocean's Food Web Polluted

"The ocean is downhill from everywhere," Moore said. "Things blow and drift into the ocean. They degrade into these particles and then become part of the ocean's load. And the consequences of this are currently unknown."

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.

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