The Largest Landfill On Earth: Plastic Garbage In The Oceans?

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Amy Gleich of,

Think about the last time you got takeout or ate at a fast food restaurant. Or the last time you bought a pre-packaged food item from a store, or drank a bottle of water or soda. Chances are, plastic was involved in all those items -- plastic that will still be around up to 1,000 years from now.  

Americans throw away over 30 million tons of plastic every year, of which only about 25 percent is recycled. The rest goes to landfills. Unfortunately, the largest “landfill” on Earth is actually in the North Pacific Ocean.

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is estimated to be anywhere from 3,100 square miles to twice the size of Texas.

You may be wondering how garbage dumped on land can make it to the ocean. Well, first of all, some garbage is directly dumped into the ocean. Secondly, as Scripps Institution marine biologist Miriam Goldstein puts it, “the ocean is downhill from everywhere;” if someone in Iowa throws a bottle into a river, it will eventually end up in the ocean. Finally, about 20 percent of the debris in the garbage patch comes from sea-going vessels and oil platforms.

The Five Main Ocean Gyres
Caption: The Five Main Ocean Gyres
Credit: Wikipedia

The garbage patch forms in the North Pacific gyre, one of five main ocean gyres worldwide: North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. These gyres are created when the jet stream goes one way and the trade winds go the opposite way – creating a huge, gently swirling circle. On the outside of the circle, the currents move around, but the inside remains calm, making it the perfect place for debris to accumulate.

In the case of the North Pacific gyre, pretty much everything that falls off the west coast of North America and the east coast of Asia will most likely end up in there. While the North Pacific garbage patch is the largest, each of the five gyres has its own accumulation. In fact, the trash from all five gyres put together covers 40 percent of the world’s oceans.

So what exactly are these oceanic garbage patches? Well, first let’s be clear as to what they’re not. Contrary to popular myth they are NOT huge floating trash islands. The patches are made up of millions of small and microscopic pieces of plastic. The patches won’t show up on satellite and if you were to take a boat through them, you might not even necessarily notice the plastic floating in them. So does that mean we don’t need to be concerned?  Nope. The fact that the debris is so small means that cleanup is nearly impossible. As Goldstein explains, you’d basically have to clear-cut the upper layer of the ocean to remove it all.

garbage patches 
Caption: Don’t be fooled. This photo often accompanies stories about the garbage patches, but it was actually taken at Manila Harbor. The real pieces of oceanic plastic garbage are typically smaller than your pinky fingernail.

So the pieces are too small to easily clean up – that might make it seem as though they’re too small to do much damage, but that’s far from correct. Some of the plastic remains in large chunks and many animals and birds become entangled in them and die every year.

The plastic pellets are small enough that birds and fish mistake them for food. This is especially disastrous for birds – the plastic stays in their stomachs, keeping them from eating anything with nutritional value and causing them to slowly starve to death. For fish, whose digestive systems are much different, the effect of eating the plastic may not be so catastrophic, but scientists are still trying to understand the extent to which ingesting these plastic pellets is effecting marine life, but for some, like the albatross below, the deadly effects are clear.

Caption: Dead albatross with a stomach full of plastic debris
Credit: Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Some creatures have actually been granted a boon by this massive plastic soup, but don’t feel too cheerful about that. The plastic has created a surface for small creatures like water insects, barnacles, small crustaceans and invertebrates called bryozoans. These creatures would normally not make it to the middle of the ocean, so their presence will change the ocean’s ecosystem. Especially in the case of barnacles and bryozoans – they have caused considerable damage to other ecosystems they’ve invaded.

And it’s not just about ecosystems in the middle of the ocean – the surface the plastic provides could enable these creatures to travel to places they’ve never been before, for example, their introduction to the Pacific Northwest islands’ coral reefs could be a real problem. 

So what can be done? The most important thing is for people to be aware. As biologist Goldstein puts it, “It really is an issue that effects everybody, but that’s great because that means that everybody can help.”

Using fewer plastic products would help, as would more recycling of what we already use. There are also scientists who are working to make plastic products from renewable products. According the Science channel, starches, cellulose, soy protein, vegetable oil, triglycerides and bacterial polyesters all contain polymers that can be processed to produce biodegradable plastics.

Even so, reducing the amount of new plastic dumped into the ocean won’t get rid of what’s already there. For that monumental task, The Ocean Cleanup – a group of oceanographers, marine biologists, recycling experts and engineers -- is raising money through crowd funding to launch a massive cleanup effort.

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Yen Cross's picture

  Throw some plywood over it and send the illegals to build a floating city.

Skateboarder's picture

Sounds like a turd world experience.

NidStyles's picture

I thought this BS was debunked a decade ago...

DeadFred's picture

Plastic doesn't degrade quickly. If we manage to kill ourselves off I imagine whatever species replaces us in a few million years will see the distinct line of plastic deposited worldwide for this time period and they will deduce our extiction was caused by a comet made of plastic.

Oldwood's picture

How come everything I buy in plastic seems to disintegrate after a few years and I have to replace it?

SoberOne's picture

While I consciously attempt to reduce the amount of waste I add to this planet, I just knew at the end someone would be asking for your money!


Edit:  Serj Tankien - Money

OldPhart's picture

Oceans hold less plastic debris than thought, study suggests

 This is similar to the global climate warming/cooling/change hype.

Stackers's picture

George Carlin covered this at length. Humans were actually created to feed the planet plastic


mkkby's picture

I claim that island as a new sovereign nation.  I'll have my own gold backed currency, and the only immigrants allowed will be gorgeous females.

RafterManFMJ's picture

Who cares? Fuck you, planet Earth.

The Humans.

Citxmech's picture

A 3 minute cartoon just for you:  "Man" by Steve Cutts.

DaveyJones's picture

and of course, there's act two:
"Fuck You Humans" - Planet Earth

rogerramjet's picture

Totally agree!  Who cares.  Got 25 more years to live. Got gas guseling gas hoags.  "Look at me, more than u, fuk u, i won.

DutchR's picture

Garbage Island: An Ocean Full of Plastic.

A three part VICE documentary:

NidStyles's picture

That is a little bit better. Hard to trust most sources these days. So much propaganda and BS running around. First it was an issue, then debunked, and now...

Paladin en passant's picture

"..debunked a decade ago..."

Yes, it was, and more recently, too, but of course the "smart, caring" people don't bother to keep up with the panics once they've reacted with hysteria to the latest bogus statistics put out by the "progressive" luddites.  One picture of a polar bear poised on an ice floe means all the world's going to be destroyed by the flames of man-made hell (but always "in the next ten years.")

gmak's picture

On a side note, to think that we are supposed to maintain the species status quo on this planet is just silly. Mother Nature herself wants a great mix so that the best do adapt and survive.  To think that the sub-millimeter plastic in the ocean is going to make a difference on the geological scale is just hubris.

john39's picture

people are missing the real implication of this.  Plastic breaks down into tiny particles, and is taken up into the food chain.  It is already in your body, in every increasing amounts.  Do you have any idea what effects it is having on you?  Plastic, after all, is a petrochemical by product...

Citxmech's picture

Quite a bit of it acts as endocrine disrupters.  

Anusocracy's picture

There are a shithouse load of things that are "endocrine disruptors".

Citxmech's picture

So what's your point - A few hundred million tons more won't matter?  And why the quotes?

Anusocracy's picture

Endocrine disruptors are a consequence of being alive.

The only way to get rid of them is to die.

Booga-booga scare tactic number 749. Welcome to the Indoctrination and Manipulation Center.

IndyPat's picture

Enjoy your bitch tits, asshole.

I'm not a tree hugger by any means, but when I see 11 yr old girls with DD boobs and little Johnny is in moms basement with nuts the size of a BB and no interest in anything other than World of Warcraft and skinny emo jeans, I don't need 20 years of intensive study at whatever shitty higher learning institution to tell me that something (or many things) is causing some MAJOR effects on human sexual development.

I don't think we have 20 yrs to spare on it. How bout a glass of water....from a fucking glass?

But go ahead and enjoy your high fructose Coke in the plastic BPA leaching bottle and wash yourself in Tea Tree Oil daily. While your at it, lick every cash register receipt you get at check out (very high in BPA).
You'll soon be one moody dood with some fantastic ta-tas and wondering if you should wear heals or those cute scrappy sandals to the club.

Just look around.

Anusocracy's picture

"Just look around."


Undernourishment slows maturation, overnourishment accelerates maturation. There are a lot of fat, metabolically screwed-up kids.

High testosterone individuals, male and female, develop faster, have sex earlier, more frequently, with more partners, and produce more children, who tend to also have higher testosterone. That's not very doable unless there is access to lots of cheap calories.

Testosterone develops the body at the expense of the brain. It diverts resources to muscle and bone, foreshortens the very long 20 year development time of the brain - especially the later stage higher brain functions.

Viola, the modern developed world.

gmak's picture

How exactly? Does it break down into its chemical components in a body?  Plastic is quite inert and does not change easily. I am having a hard time believing that it is being incorporated into the muscle tissue of things I eat.

stacking12321's picture

you should invite me to the next party at your house.

i'll throw some beer bottles against the wall, knock some furniture over, spray paint some stuff.

oh yeah, then if you complain, i'll be sure to remind you that it's not going to matter on the geological scale.

Harbanger's picture

Just think, anytime you're in a room with other people you are breathing in their exhaled breath and inhaling molecules of their bodily fluids.   Eww, maybe it's better to live in an air bubble.

americanspirit's picture

Harbanger - and let's not forget all those farts filling the air you breathe.

But actually, what I dislike most about being in a crowd of people is that I am subjected to the toxic aromas of their mental illness. Hate, fear, lust, greed etc all have a distinctive stench. Closely resembling decaying flesh, except that these smells are of a decaying soul.

Anusocracy's picture

Poor analogy.

Littering the house with a bunch of pictures of you naked would be better.

Oldwood's picture

Whats up with that?

Conservatives hate change and want everything to stay the same, yet they are responsible for destroying the planet.

Progressives claim to want progress and change, yet do everything in their power to prevent evolution, and claim to want to save the planet as it was in 1965 (no not thousands of years ago because the cliate was hotter or colder then, I forget).

I'm just so damned confused.

IdiocracyIsAlreadyHere's picture

"Conservatives" barely exist these days - those that self-describe as such are usually nothing more than the most petty of tribalists whose opinions are reflect nothing more than their enthusiam to show how much affinity for the "tribe" they possess.  They shout out the terms "liberal" and "progressive" as insults without having any clue as to the actual meaning of those words, just a label to degrade those not of their tribe.

"Progressive" is a word used without actual meaning as well, just a label used to self-identify members of a tribe opposed to the "conservative" one but petty tribalists as well.  The only difference is that the tend to be slightly less atavistic than those of the other tribe but in the end are nothing but poo-flingers all the same.

Humanity is screwed b/c for all we have supposedly learned over the ages the majority of us still can't function without descending into the same primitive tribalist mindset that we had when we were living in caves and just learning to understand fire.

Are you still confused?   

Anusocracy's picture

Since mankind has pretty much kept his primitive, derived from nature's bloody in tooth and claw social organization, there is virtually no evolutionary pressure to evolve beyond it.

We are probably at the point where, throughout the history of the universe, intelligent life gave up the ghost.

Chimps with nuclear six-guns.

Harbanger's picture

Conservative means to conserve as in stewardship, that would make them true conservationists.  I don't know a single conservative or liberal who wants more pollution. 
Progressives on the other hand, use bullshit to scare people into more control, only they can save you, the last thing they care about is saving anything except their politcal agenda. 

Anusocracy's picture

The worst pollution is from the insane true believers, left, right, and middle.

Zoomorph's picture

You're right that the idea of "preserving" the status quo is rather silly.

You're wrong that sub-millimeter plastic in the ocean won't make a different on the geological scale.

msmith9962's picture

Good point.  All that plastic has to go somewhere.  Why not the ocean?  This is one of the worst parts of what's coming up.  After 6  billion people are gone this place is just gonna be trashed.

Hongcha's picture

We are shitting the bed, gentlemen.  It is only a matter of time before mother nature makes her move.  She can be a real bitch, if you don't play ball; and we are not:

Death Himself
(Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor)
stands grinning, beckoning.
Plutonium tooth-glow.
Eyebrows buzzing.
Strip-mining scythe.

Kali dances on the dead stiff cock.

Aluminum beer cans, plastic spoons,
Plywood veneer, PVC pipe, vinyl seat covers, 
don't exactly burn, don't quite rot, 
flood over us,

robes and garbs
of the Kali-yuga

end of days.


-- Gary Snyder

Bastiat's picture

Thanks Hongcha.  That poem's been with me since the early 70s.

Zog the Bastiat's picture

I don't know who you are, but you're not me.

CPL's picture

I was always a fan of Tui Bei Tu myself.  It's one of the only ones out there with a happy ending, versus the drama queen nonsense everyone else barks about.

Skateboarder's picture

+1 on the Kali Yuga reference. Have a great 2-part song to share:

"Praise the mighty devi who turn the wheel another time."

SF beatnik's picture

Fuck Gary Snyder. What would Great Bukowski say?

LawsofPhysics's picture

Banks are already working on how to sell and book this on their balance sheets as "ocean front property".

Mark to fantasy forever!!!

BigJim's picture

There must be some way to define this as valuable hydrocarbon and to introduce it into the system as collateral ready to be rehypothecated.

Big Brother's picture

It's been "rehycarbocated" where the ocean's surface is mined for plastic, which is collected and converted into gas, kerocsene, diesel, etc...  We just have to draw our borders around those circulating arrows and claim it as sovereign ocean currents.  It's only a step above what we do already.

TheABaum's picture

I always love the guy driving a Prius going to some restaurant like Boston Market where the food is served on single use plastic (or at least it was, the last time I was there).

Mercury's picture

Garbage in the ocean disgusts me but (floating) plastic won't last 1000 years in the ocean, no way.

It may not bio-degrade very well but it photo-degrades pretty quickly.

Bring a boat to the Caribbean and watch it and all it's parts wear out in the sun day by day.

It ends up looking like a 50 yr. old crack whore in about 1/4 the time.

john39's picture

degrades... doesn't dissappear.  like ink spilled into sugar.