Trash Island


A soda bottle tossed in the trash may be embarking on a journey of thousands of miles. Perhaps blown into a stream by the next rainstorm, it will be ground into synthetic sand as it filters through rivers, eventually reaching the ocean. Then, it will ride the tides to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, ending up in a gyre the size of the continental United States, known to researchers as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

The patch isn’t actually solid ground, despite the popularized image of an island of swirling bottles and tires. It doesn’t register on satellites and it’s possible to sail through the currents that concentrate the region without seeing it from the ship. But just below the water’s surface lurk millions of plastic particles the size of fingernails.

Data is scarce, but estimates suggest 80 percent of these pieces hail from inland— sources as seemingly innocuous as household trash, according to Erik Zettler, Professor of Oceanography for the Sea Education Association, who has helped oversee research investigations to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And while the gyre seems expansive, Zettler explains that it is the product of a relatively small portion of the plastic we consume. “One or two years ago we as a society on earth produced 35 kilograms, which is about 80 pounds, of plastic for every man, woman and child on the planet, and we do that every year—in fact it’s going up each year.” Just a few plastic forks that escape the landfill or coffee lids littered on the street quickly accumulate into billions, concentrated by ocean currents and aggregated over time into smaller and smaller pieces that take eons break down.

It is the ghost of our garbage, kept far out of sight and mind. Captain Charle Moore, marine researcher and founder of the Algalita Marine Research Institute, was not the first to discover the garbage patch—but he was the first to get mad about it. In 1997, when he took a shortcut home from a boat race across the Pacific, he found mile after mile cluttered with debris. “They thought plastic was no big deal and I thought it was messing up the place,” Moore said, adding that plastic in the ocean is killing more animals through slow strangulation than global warming or natural disasters combined.

Moore explains that plastic looks like food to every animal in the aquatic food chain, from plankton to the great blue whale, but it is poisonous, leeching embedded carcinogens and attracting toxins like DDT. These chemicals concentrate in the flanks of fish like tuna, merlin, and sharks—creatures that, in turn, look like meals to humans.

Researchers have also just discovered that the Garbage Patch hosts wildlife of another kind. Each piece of plastic is an island unto itself, inhabited by land-based microorganisms carried on the surface of the debris. Little is known about life on this “plastisphere,” but potential threats abound, explains Zettler. He is studying the presence of bacteria on the plastics and their potential to carry disease and invasive species from continent to continent.

On Nov. 9, Researchers Chelsea Rochman and Kristen Mitchell both returned changed after a month-long SEA expedition investigating the ecological impact of plastic.

“Most people will never have the opportunity to be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and see a large window of plastic envelop the ship they are standing on,” Mitchell said. “That is why it is my job as well as everyone aboard to convey this issue to the public.”

Rochman wrote in a blog post from aboard the ship, “The reality of the plastic soup hit hard. … Like a train wreck, you cannot look away. As we continue on in the gyre, thoughts about what we can do surround us. How can we truly make a difference?”

Considering the millions of pieces spread across thousands of nautical miles, the most common answer is: We can’t.

“Clean-up isn’t a practical goal. The way to get plastic out of the ocean is to stop putting it in and let the ocean clean itself up,” Zettler said.

But Carey Morshige, the Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association offers a different answer: We have to.

NOAA goes beyond prevention to lead and support removal efforts, especially along the shoreline. It would be easy for these efforts to feel futile, Morshige said, as she has seen freshly cleaned beaches heaped with new trash by the next day.

But she keeps hope afloat by investing in the smaller successes she has witnessed on Hawaiian shorelines, including one so polluted that it was known as Plastic Beach.  Today, consistent clean-up by the Hawaiian Wildlife Fund has restored the shore to its natural state.

For those living inland, though, there’s not much to do but apply the usual environmental mantras: Buy reusable bottles, use less plastic, recycle. “I don’t see any other options. We aren’t going to stop using plastic,” Zettler said.

But we can keep it on this continent—and shrink the one in the Pacific.

Eleanor Marshall ’16 is in Saybrook College. Contact her at