TOXIC: Garbage Island – Humans Have Finally Ruined the Ocean

There is a Texas-size section of the Pacific Ocean that is irretrievably clogged with garbage and it will never go away. And I have seen it with my own eyes. Case closed. Oh, you want to hear more? OK, fine.

In the middle of the 90s, Charles Moore was sailing his racing catamaran back to California from Hawaii and decided on a lark to cut through the center of the North Pacific Gyre. The Gyre is an enormous vortex of currents revolving around a continuous high-pressure zone—if you think of the rest of the Pacific as a gigantic toilet, this zone would be the part where your poop bobs and twirls before being sucked down. Boats typically avoid it since it’s essentially one big windless death trap, so when Moore motored through it was just him, his crew, and an endless field of garbage.

As long as it’s existed, the middle of the Gyre has been a naturally occurring point of accumulation for all the drifting crap in its half of the ocean. Once upon a time, flotsam circled into the middle of the Gyre and (because up until the past century everything in the world was biodegradable) was broken down into a nutrient-rich stew perfect for fish and smaller invertebrates to chow on. Then we started making everything out of plastic and the whole place went to shit.

The problem with plastic is, unless you hammer it with enough pressure to make a diamond, it never fully disintegrates. Over time plastic will photodegrade all the way down to the individual polymers, but those little guys are still in it for the long haul. This means that except for the slim handful of plastics designed specifically to biodegrade, every synthetic molecule ever made still exists. And except for the small percentage that gets caught in a net or washes up on a shore, every chunk of plastic that’s dropped into the Pacific makes its way to the center of the Gyre and is floating there right now.

After watching junk lap against the side of his boat for the better part of a week, Captain Moore decided to convert his boat into a research vessel and make semiannual trips into the Gyre to study the trash. I tagged along on his most recent voyage, joining a divorced, 40-something doctor and a Mexican chemist and mother of two as his crew. It was like a family vacation, but with more science and way more bummers.

The garbage patch is located at one of the most remote points on earth. It takes a solid week of sailing just to get there. Considering how torturous the average daylong car trip gets, you can well imagine the kind of zap job that seven days on a 50-foot boat will do to your brain. You lose sight of land the first day, then you stop seeing other ships, then you stop seeing anything at all except for endless waves and occasionally a seabird, which, after days of nothing but water, becomes as exciting as spotting a UFO. Right at the point where you’ve come up with a separate song for every bird in the ship’s guidebook and have begun integrating them into a full seabird opera, you start seeing the trash.

I had assumed (completely without any basis in research or common sense) that there was some contiguous mass of concentrated garbage the captain was steering us toward, but (sadly?) this was not the case. The debris patterns shift with the currents, so you just have to aim the boat in one direction and hope for crap. Every so often we’d spot a few different pieces of garbage floating sort of near one another, but for the most part it was just a steady stream of junk, passing one piece at a time. It was a little underwhelming at first, but keep in mind we were cutting a razor-thin course through one of the biggest expanses of open water on the planet. The fact that we couldn’t look out the window for the better part of the trip without seeing some piece of junk bobbing by holds some seriously ugly implications for the rest of the ocean.

The first few times we spotted garbage, we made a big production of stopping the boat and going out to scoop it up. Then we began just picking up whatever trash we could snag from the front of the deck. Then we just grabbed whatever looked interesting.

Some of the flotsam is fun stuff that fell off the side of container ships, like entire crates of hockey masks and Nikes.

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