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Garbage Patch FAQs

September 28, 2009
Me with string, caption: A piece of fishing line I caught off the stern with a hand net. Photo Jeff Ernst

Me with string, caption: A piece of fishing line I caught off the stern with a hand net. Photo Jeff Ernst

I’ve received a lot of questions about what the garbage patch actually looks like. Some people wonder whether you can walk on it or see it from space. Others wonder if you could turn it into a man-made island and auction it off, then use the money to raise awareness about plastic pollution. Project Kaisei, a non-profit based in San Francisco, has referred to the patch as the 8th continent. Here’s what it’s really like:

Q. Is it dense enough to constitute an island?
A. Nope, not even close. The majority of the debris is small plastic fragments the size of rice. When you stand on the bow of the ship you can’t see these fragments because they’re too small and are often below the surface. And with the reflection of the water and how fast the ship is moving it’s difficult to see anything floating by unless it’s at least the size of a pea.

Q. So you don’t see any plastic from the ship?
A. No, we do see plastic, usually bigger objects like buoys, rope and water bottles that are easy to detect from far away. Jeff likes to sit on the main sail when it’s down and scan the horizon for trash. On calm seas we can see white or orange buoys up to one mile away; they look like tiny specks bobbing up and down among the waves.

Q. So what exactly do you see out there?
A. The list is long. Common objects include water bottles, rope, fishing line, and pieces of plastic crates. We’ve also found a toothbrush, an umbrella handle, a tiny plastic tire (perhaps from a toy truck), a toilet seat, a glass vile, a plastic lid and part of a hag fish trap. We also saw a light bulb and a glass float, neither of which we were able to catch.

Q. What about partnering with Google Earth to get a photo of the garbage patch online?
A. Moore has mentioned this before and met with representatives from Google. It’s a possibility but anything that went up on the site would be entirely conceptual/representational. Water in the ocean is like air in the atmosphere-it never stays in one place and these tiny fragments are constantly moving.

Q. Where does the trash come from?
A. Most of it comes from the Pacific Rim. Some of the buoys we found have Japanese writing on them and one even says made in Japan. One yellow crate has Korean writing and another buoy says made in China. The garbage is carried off the coast of Asia by the Kuroshio Current, which flows east toward the United States. The Kuroshio Current is one of many currents that comprise the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre where the garbage patch is located. I should note that Americans contribute their fair share to the garbage patch; it isn’t just filled with rubbish from Asia.

This is a square Styrofoam float wrapped in a net that we saw from 150 yards away. Photo Jeff Ernst

This is a square Styrofoam float wrapped in a net that we saw from 150 yards away. Photo Jeff Ernst

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 2, 2009 6:55 am

    Was that a vial glass vile, or a vile glass vial?

  2. Diane Bailey Haug permalink
    October 7, 2009 5:02 am

    Glad you are safe on solid ground! Hope to see you soon.
    Diane

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