Around the time I graduated from high school, a candy bar wrapper got thrown off a dock in Venice Beach, California. As I swirled around America doing various things - going Northeast to college, then South, then West, then East - that wrapper swirled too. All this time it has ridden ocean currents on a clockwise route around the Pacific.
But now, six years later, its estimated time of arrival has arrived, and the wrapper is reaching its final destination. Alongside an unknowable quantity of similar detritus, the wrapper is now bobbing up and down in a stationary region of water in the dead center of the Pacific. It has become part of an ugly, ominous, terrifying mass known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Estimates range from Texas-sized to more like the area of the entire continental U.S., but it is hard to say quite how big the Patch is because most of it isn't even visible. There are certainly large pieces of flotsam floating on top, but the greater danger is a dense layer of confetti-like plastic lurking beneath the ocean surface. Plastic breaks down over time into smaller and smaller bits, leaching toxic chemicals as it degrades. Eventually the bits become small enough to be devoured by plankton, at which point they enter the food chain.
Scientists believe most of the trash that converges in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch washes out to sea from land, but some is dumped from ships. A single 3,000 passenger cruise ship produces 8 tons of solid waste per week, for instance, and some of this gets expelled into the ocean.
In the past two years, several research projects have started work to determine the feasibility of cleaning up the Pacific Patch. Unfortunately, though, just as we have begun to address the trashberg in the Pacific, a garbage patch almost as large has been discovered in the middle of the Atlantic.
Fact: We should really, really stop using synthetic polymers.