It is estimated that 10 percent of the world’s plastic waste finds its way into the sea and slowly but surely most of it ends up in the Pacific Ocean.
Sea currents transport the waste into ocean dead zones, large areas of water that are slow moving circular currents which trap debris into one large constantly moving mass of plastic.
This mass of plastic is slowly being broken down into a plastic dust that marine wildlife mistake for food. Small fish consume tiny bits of plastic as if they were normal plankton. Those fish are then consumed by larger species and the plastic contamination moves up the food chain.
The UN Environmental Program estimates that over a million seabirds, as well as more than 100 thousand marine mammals, die every year from ingesting plastic debris.
Dead seabirds having mistaken plastics for food, have been found with discarded plastic lighters, water bottle caps and scraps of plastic bags in their stomachs.
Scientifically the area is known as the Northern Pacific Gyre, one of five gyres in the world’s oceans.
They are an area of sea where water circulates clockwise in a very slow spiral. Winds are light and the currents tend to force any floating material into the low energy center of the gyre everything afloat becomes trapped.
These “dead zones” have been well known to sailors for centuries and they have traditonally avoided them at all costs. Low wind conditions means slow sailing.
Recently some sailors have been taking power assisted short cuts to their destinations and discovering vast areas of plastic garbage in their wake.
Some researchers estimate that there are over six kilos of plastic for every kilo of naturally occurring plankton in the Pacific plastic waste dump.
Besides being a danger in themselves these vast areas of plastic pollution act as chemical sponge attracting other damaging pollutants, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), hydrocarbons and DDT that have been dumped in the oceans, creating even more highly damaging toxins for marine wildlife to mistake for food.
The northern Pacific plastic dump is deceptive to the eye. While it contains huge amounts of plastic waste it is not all floating on the surface. Wave action and the heat of the sun degrades the plastic into smaller and smaller particles which can formÂ a sinking toxic soup that extends down to 6 meters below the oceans surface.
But there is still enough plastic floating on the surface to create a false habitat for plant and animal organisms to live on. Once attached to the floating surface these species are transported far beyond their normal ecosystems.
These ocean hitchhikers can then invade new habitats to become possible nuisance species in environments that nature didn’t originally intend them to inhabit.
Not all plastic floats. As it breaks down it can begin to sink towards the oceans bottom. Dutch scientists have discovered that over 70 percent of discarded plastic eventually sinks to the sea bed.
The Dutch researchers have counted an astounding 600 thousand tonnes of plastic sitting on the North Sea floor. As that ocean floor becomes increasingly smothered by descending bits of plastic sea bed organisms struggle for survival.
Dr. Marcus Eriksen, research Director of the Algalita Institute in Atlanta says, Whatever goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate.
There has been little concern voiced by governments as the Pacific Ocean toxic garbage patch largely lay outside of international waters, outside their normal legislative considerations.
The problem is being intensified as modern plastics become more durable and increasingly more disposable.
As the Pacific plastic dump grows, and it could double in size by 2015, the effect on the human food chain becomes more toxic and problematic.