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Reflections on the patch

December 9, 2009

A few weeks ago GlobalPost asked me to write up an eye witness account of the garbage patch. It was scheduled to run as part of the Oceans Project, which is, by the way, worth checking out. In the end they didn’t run it as the copy for their project went online before they could get to my submission. But I thought, why keep it nestled away on my computer. It’s here for you to consider.

I was asked one question repeatedly before I left for my month-long Garbage Patch voyage. “Is it literally an island of waste?” I’d heard the patch called everything from a trash vortex to a plastic soup. San Francisco-based Project Kaisei, which is investigating ways to clean up the mess, even referred to it as the 8th continent. I wasn’t sure about this, so in early September, when I set off to visit the patch among a crew of five people that included Captain Moore, who discovered the patch, this question was on the top of my list.

For the first few days we didn’t see anything. We were hundreds of miles off the coast of Oahu and all I saw were flying fish that soared past the ship and red-footed boobies that nestled on the railing of the ship at night.

"red-footed boobies nestled on the railing of the ship at night"

And then we started trawling. Moore uses a fine mesh net attached to a rectangular aluminum frame that he drags behind the ship to collect samples. As soon as he pulled up the net, turned it inside out and dumped the contents into a large glass bowl I could see what all the fuss was about. Tiny pieces of plastic the size of popcorn kernels were floating in the water. Most were white or green or blue—Moore later told me that the dyes in yellow and red plastic tend to fade quicker. And among all the plastic were tiny organisms—crabs and jellyfish and halobates, insect-like creatures, which resemble mosquitoes.

The even more shocking discovery is that this became routine. After a week, I was accustomed to the net coming back up with plastic fragments. And eventually the objects got bigger. One day we pulled up a plastic Popsicle stick. Another day we found a toothbrush, the next day an umbrella handle and the next day a small plastic wheel that looked like it belonged on a toy truck.

"a small plastic wheel looked like it belonged on a toy truck"

And it didn’t matter the time of day or night. There was always more trash. I remember waking up one morning and looking over the railing just in time to see an enormous light bulb float by. On another day, as the sun set, the motor stalled and first mate Jeffery Ernst had to dive under the ship with a flashlight and untangle a piece of rope that was wrapped around the propeller.

But it wasn’t like an island. You certainly couldn’t walk on it and there were days when the seas were violent and we didn’t see anything. Captain Moore joked, “the garbage patch is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.”
The comment seemed laughable but stuck in my head. This was the problem—not that there was a garbage island or that the fragments were too tiny to bother cleaning up, it was the unpredictability. An island would be simple to clean up, we’d send out hundreds of commercial vessels to remove large chunks and that would be that. Or if all the pieces were small we’d declare the cleanup effort pointless and move on. But the fact that we can rescue some items while abandoning others makes us desperately believe that we can eventually get to it all. Even our attempt to label this patch—to call it an island and neatly package it up for media production shows our attempt to categorize an indefinable mess. We believe that if we can understand it we can tackle it. That we can remove the toothbrushes and water bottles and ropes. And that one day, we’ll return for the glass light bulb.

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