Pacific ‘rubbish superhighway’ going unnoticed

ABC News, 1st November 2007

A vast rubbish dump, which covers an area bigger than Australia, is floating in the Pacific Ocean and research shows it is growing bigger.

The rubbish collects in one area because of a clockwise trade wind that circulates around the Pacific rim.

In his Tasmanian-built research vessel, Captain Charles Moore has just returned from a trip through the plastic stew floating between Hawaii and San Francisco.

“Toothbrushes are quite common, plastic bags are quite common, soap bottles are quite common, we’ve been finding a good many umbrella handles, minus the umbrella,” he said.

“We find toolboxes, and oddly enough an item that seems to be quite prevalent now is plastic hard hats. I found one upside down with fish living in the upturned helmet.”

The rubbish patch is extremely remote – it takes a week to reach it in a boat.

Captain Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, says the eastern part of what is labelled the “Pacific Garbage Patch” is joined by a rubbish superhighway to a western collection of debris off Japan.

“We’re talking about an area larger than the continent of Australia,” he said.

Captain Moore says the marine debris between Hawaii and California contains 40 times more plastic than plankton.

“The currents make the identifiable plastic come mostly from Asia, because it arrives rather quickly, whereas the North American debris takes over five years in some cases to get to this garbage patch,” he said.

“In that period of time it’s broken into bits, and we can’t see any writing on it, so we can’t trace it back to the United States.

“It’s certainly true that all the countries bordering the Pacific contribute to this garbage patch.”

Global effort

He says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was mounting a clean-up effort to rid the ocean of “extremely destructive” nets.

“It’s like rolling a giant mesh bowling ball against the coral reef when they hit land, and the waves push them across and it rips out all the coral and tangles the endangered monk seal – the only tropical seal,” he added.

Dr Holly Bamford is the director of the marine debris program at the NOAA.

She says the NOAA is considering flying unmanned aircraft over the oceanic rubbish dump to collect more data.

“What these vehicles can do is they can be launched from platforms of vessels, and they can skim pretty close to the surface of the water,” she said.

“Once it detects an anomaly, which means if it detects something on the ocean surface, it would record that, and then that would come back to the vessel.”

Because the floating landfill lies in international waters, there is not a lot of political will to attempt a massive clean-up.

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