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Biotech Earth Science

Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch Worries Researchers 296

Posted by Soulskill
from the we're-gonna-need-a-bigger-boat dept.
NeverVotedBush writes with an update to a story we discussed early this month about an enormous accumulation of garbage and plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles off the coast of California. The team of scientists has now returned from their expedition to examine the area and say they "found much more debris than they expected." The team will start running tests on the samples they retrieved, and they are preparing to visit another section of ocean they suspect will be full of trash. "The Scripps team hopes the samples they gathered during the trip nail down answers to questions of the trash's environmental impact. Does eating plastic poison plankton? Is the ecosystem in trouble when new sea creatures hitchhike on the side of a water bottle? Plastics have entangled birds and turned up in the bellies of fish, and one paper cited by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates 100,000 marine mammals die trash-related deaths each year. The scientists hope their data gives clues as to the density and extent of marine debris, especially since the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may have company in the Southern Hemisphere, where scientists say the gyre is four times bigger. 'We're afraid at what we're going to find in the South Gyre, but we've got to go there,' said Tony Haymet, director of the Scripps Institution."
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Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch Worries Researchers

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  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @01:31PM (#29244513) Homepage Journal
    Is it full of garbage patch dolls?
  • by Vellmont (569020) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @01:35PM (#29244551)

    This story remind me of the George Carlin bit on the environment:

    The planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new pardigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn't share our prejudice towards plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn't know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, "Why are we here?" Plastic...asshole.

    So, the plastic is here, our job is done, we can be phased out now. And I think that's begun

    • The plastic is only part of it... Nature also needed us to refine silicon and manufacture the first IC's. We're just Nature's first quick and dirty way to compute with meat. (Bart Kosko prof. USC)
  • by Dachannien (617929) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @01:37PM (#29244561)

    We're afraid at what we're going to find in the South Gyre, but we've got to go there,' said Tony Haymet, director of the Scripps Institution.

    Famous last words before being eaten by Cthulhu.

  • by bistromath007 (1253428) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @01:48PM (#29244669)
    Problem: Overfishing
    Problem: Garbage in the water
    Solution: Pay fisherman to catch garbage
    • by b4upoo (166390)

      Plastics have value. Net it and recycle it or turn it into fuel.

    • Solution: Pay fisherman to catch garbage

      Better solution:

      1. Create plastic eating microbes. [therecord.com]
      2. Deposit in plastic-rich oceanic environment.
      3. Let nature do the rest. -_-

    • by tentimestwenty (693290) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @02:11PM (#29244899)
      And where do you put it? It was dumped in the Ocean for a reason, because it was not convenient or possible to dump it anywhere else. Did you read the size of the garbage patch? Would you want that in your back yard? The point is that we are making too much garbage! Any 5 year old can tell you that's the real issue.
    • Which leads to:

      Problem: Freshly caught non-recyclable garbage piling up on shore. Solution: Put it on display and charge admission? (You'll need tickets, concessions, and useless trinkets to sell of course. And when these all reach the ocean two months later, pay them to catch it again, add it to the existing ball-o-crap and raise ticket prices.)

      I am assuming this stuff is all not reusable, which is why it's out there in the first place. Of course if all else fails, launch it into Jupiter. (assuming t
      • by Animaether (411575) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @04:15PM (#29246095) Journal

        I am assuming this stuff is all not reusable, which is why it's out there in the first place.

        eh?

        It's out there because we're a filthy bunch. We throw away plastic willy-nilly wherever we want; and whether that's in a forest or into the street (into gutter into drain out into the sea onward to the ocean) or, heck, off a cruise ship, we're not throwing it away because it's "not reusable".

        Most plastic -is- reusable, even if all you do with it is create plastic pellets or plastic film. The rest you can compact, dump somewhere, put soil on top, and voila... a hill. One giant problematic hill, but rather less problematic there than it is out in the oceans where wildlife can actually get to it.

    • by Chink Admin (1249608) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @03:07PM (#29245481)

      There are two things that make this difficult. The amount of garbage is the size of Texas and a lot of the plastics have dissolved.

      A crew went to the gyre and recorded a documentary (a free documentary by VBS.TV Garbage Island [www.vbs.tv]), hoping to see giant island of garbage. While they did not see the island, what they saw was far worse. The plastics have dissolved and estimated that the amount of dissolved plastics is higher than the microscopic sea life and natural oceanic nutrients in the water. The gyre is now very, very gross. The garbage is either so scattered or very well dissolved that there is no way that it can be cleansed that easily.

      • by CAIMLAS (41445) on Sunday August 30, 2009 @04:50PM (#29254317) Homepage

        Plastic, due to being petroleum based, does not "dissolve". It can a) bio-degrade or b) become a suspended solid, provide the particles are small enough (as well as obvious combinations of the two).

        And it is, apparently, doing both.

        The size of this garbage dump itself is not a problem, the problem is that it's likely still increasing. If it remained static, or was left alone, it would continue to degrade back into other compounds (some harmful, others not).

    • Better not pay them by the haul, or that's a good strategy for inducing fishermen to dump massive amounts of garbage in the water on their days off. And if you just pay them for time spent at sea, you're paying them to cruise and do nothing.

  • by Goffee71 (628501) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @01:48PM (#29244673) Homepage
    Why not pay some of those Japanese whaling factory ships with their big front loading dock doors and all those impoverished fishing crews to go and net this crud out of the water... keeps an industry running, saves some whales, helps a bit of fish restocking and cleans up the planet a bit... I'm sure they can find some bailout budget left to help out Can't hurt to try.
    • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdotNO@SPAMhackish.org> on Saturday August 29, 2009 @02:05PM (#29244819)

      My impression is that the vast majority of the garbage is actually quite small particles and fragments, not whole plastic bottles and the like that could be scooped up with nets. Would need some sort of high-volume filtration system.

      • Yes it would (Score:2, Interesting)

        by zogger (617870)

        "Would need some sort of high-volume filtration system."

        Yes it would, and wouldn't that be an extremely intertesting bit of technology to develop? Right off the bat if they first developed a way to get the plastic to reclump together, then the filter, then be able to further refine it, it could be a very lucrative oceanic mine for decades, like has been mentioned, get some fishermen and sailors back to useful work. And similar high volume filtration tech might be used for another example say

      • Like, say, whales.

    • by girlintraining (1395911) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @02:12PM (#29244903)

      Why not pay some of those Japanese whaling factory ships with their big front loading dock doors

      Okay, two things -- first, assuming you come up with an efficient method of collecting the plastic (which is broken down to the molecular level and is essentially a fine film) -- because just opening the doors and scooping it up is a bad plan. But let's say you solve that. Here's your several hundred cubic feet of plastic. Now what? You gotta turn around, drag it all the way back home, and bury it somewhere. A whaling vessel is only designed to carry a few tonnes, or perhaps a few dozen tonnes -- not a few hundred thousand tonnes.

      This is a problem of scale. We need supertankers, not whaling boats.

      • Not to mention that the big doors on those ships open on the stern [smh.com.au]. They'd have to go backwards and although that would be kind of entertaining, it's probably not very practical.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Buelldozer (713671)

        Bind it with another agent that will make it heaver than water and kick it over board and let it sink to the bottom.

    • by MrMista_B (891430)

      Pay them? With who's money?

  • by Cookie3 (82257) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @01:49PM (#29244679) Homepage

    Researchers (and sci-fi writers) always talk about things like gigantic space elevators and star-encompassing spheres; works that would take an entire world's focus (and several generations of dedicated work) to accomplish. I always figured that those were unaccomplishable dreams...

    But then I read this story and got to thinking... Why not make a gigantic net and scoop up all that garbage?

    • by girlintraining (1395911) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @02:08PM (#29244861)

      Why not make a gigantic net and scoop up all that garbage?

      Well, because it's been broken down to the molecular level. It'd float right through a net. What's needed is a troller that can suck up the first several inches of water, remove the plastic particles, and then discard the water. Unfortunately, even something with the capacity of a supertanker would take decades of 24/7 operation to make much progress -- Because once you collect it, you gotta transport it somewhere else.

      • by Eevee (535658)

        Because once you collect it, you gotta transport it somewhere else.

        Like to a recycling center to turn it in to more plastic instead of drilling for even more oil?

      • by uncqual (836337)
        Likely the "sucker(s)" would not be the same vessel(s) as the "transporter(s)". The "suckers" would likely be much smaller and have a bunch of specialized equipment on them and would offload the plastic bits to the "transporters". Probably the "transporters" could be quite a variety of ships - perhaps ones that are obsolete for their originally intended use (any single wall oil tankers left that weren't salvaged for their steel during the boom times?).
      • by ArchieBunker (132337) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @02:52PM (#29245345) Homepage

        If you burn the plastic and debris at a high temperature the emissions are relatively small. Burn it and put the exhaust through another filter to catch whats left. Hell you could probably power the ship from the incinerators.

        Too bad plastic is cheaper to make than it is to reclaim. Otherwise someone would have scooped it all up and made it into milk jugs by now.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by 32771 (906153)

          I'm in favour of some large nuclear explosions. Those would probably break up the plastic.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by HiThere (15173)

        Not quite the way to go. You build your siphon feeder, and you design it to run on solar, nuclear, or, if you can figure out how, plastic. It accumulates the gunk until it's got several cubic yards of the stuff, presses it together, and then heat it until it fuses. In the process you shape it so it has a convenient tow ring. Then you attach a rope (possibly also fused from plastic) to it and toss it overboard. A tug pulls up, picks the rope from your deck, and lugs the stuff to a recycling center on la

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by stagg (1606187)
      I think that marine biologists are concerned about the amount of sea life they'd destroy in the process. They're concerned that there's a lot of marine life living amidst the garbage, so any kind of heavy handed solution would cause further environmental damage.
    • by gravos (912628)
      But then I read this story and got to thinking... Why not make a gigantic net and scoop up all that garbage?

      And put it where? Texas?
    • by LoRdTAW (99712)

      "Why not make a gigantic net and scoop up all that garbage?"

      Simple. There is no money to be made in garbage fishing.

  • Gyre never made it as far as chortle or galumph, but if it had crossed into proper english it would most certainly be a verb.
    • by SEWilco (27983)

      Gyre never made it as far as chortle or galumph, but if it had crossed into proper english it would most certainly be a verb.

      Actually, I hear that not only did it gyre, but it also did gimble. At least it did while in the wabe.

  • I've seen a handful of pictures from this Pacific Gyre, but they tend to be closely cropped pictures of nets full of garbage. Are there any pictures that give you a sense of scale for the Gyre? Maybe an aerial photo or something?

    • by dtmos (447842) * on Saturday August 29, 2009 @04:23PM (#29246173)

      I can't give you pictures of the entire gyre, but there are several taken during the March 2008 DXpedition [clipperton2008.org] to Clipperton Island [wikipedia.org], a small (9 square kilometers, 3.5 square miles), uninhabited (and rarely visited) island in the North Pacific about 1100 km (700 mi) off the coast of Mexico [wikipedia.org].

      Visitors to Clipperton were shocked to see the amount of detritus at the high-tide level on the beach, so far into the Pacific, and took a lot of photographs of it (e.g., here [clipperton2008.org], here [washington.edu], and here [clipperton2008.org]). Ann Santos, one of the operators, noted in her blog [clipperton2008.org],

      Clipperton island is a place where you can see how much impact man has had on land and environment. Seeing the trash washed up on shore when I was on Kure Atoll in 2005 was nothing compared to what is on Clipperton. There are shoes, fishing nets, pieces of buys, lighters, bottles (both plastic and glass), tires and much more.

      Most [clipperton2008.org] of their outdoor photos [clipperton2008.org] have plastic trash in them.

  • by Judinous (1093945) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @02:03PM (#29244801)
    The vast, vast majority of the trash contained in this "garbage patch" is composed of particulates far too small for the eye to see, suspended below the surface. Cleaning it up would require a large number of autonomous floating machines with, essentially, portable water treatment plants on board. All of these suggestions about fishing boats running around and scooping up plastic bottles out of the ocean is complete nonsense.

    Imagine trying to filter the dirt out of a muddy lake. Extrapolate that to an area of the ocean a few times larger than the state of Texas, and you can begin to envision the magnitude of the solution required.
    • I would bet you are right, but there are big masses out there as well. I have personal experience with this. My wife and I were sitting on the beach of the big island of Hawaii and this mass [flickr.com] drifted in. I was told it wasn't the first time. Some guys had to cut the thing in half and then use a tractor to drag it away in pieces. I also noticed that it was something of a mini-ecosystem with crabs and flies and such crawling all over it.
      • by jeffstar (134407)

        those looked like fishing nets to me.

        If you were to come across that in the deep ocean there would be loads of fish following it around feasting the mini-eco system that you describe.

        If a fisherman comes across a 'floater' like that it is great luck!

        • I wish that I had gotten a close up of the garbage. It was mostly, as you say, fishing net, but in that netting was lots and lots of other debris, from plastic bottles to styrofoam chunks. I am guessing that if a fisherman comes across something like this and it gets tangled up in the props it is something less than good luck.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by phantomfive (622387)
        Hawaii is right on the edge of the Gyre, apparently. In Hawaii, especially on the north shore beaches that have fewer people, I noticed a lot of little pieces of plastic were always on the beach. It's kind of ugly, and mildly annoying. I never noticed it in California (although California beaches have the major disadvantage that they are COLD).
  • Resource Storage (Score:4, Interesting)

    by that this is not und (1026860) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @02:04PM (#29244811)

    The 'plastic' waste modern man produced could be seen as a resource storage.

    We're burning up a lot of the petroleum resources. Which means it goes away. Gone, not available in the future.

    The portion of the petroleum that we're turning into plastic is being preserved in that form. A century from now people might be saying 'thank goodness they saved SOME of the petroleum in the form of all that plastic in the landfills and floating in that big mass on the ocean.' And then they may go on to curse the 'environmentalists' who forced industry to stop using plastic bags and containers. All the 'biodegradable' packaging just crumbled away.

    Not saying this is a completely thought out notion, but it makes some sense.

    Tear into it if it conflicts with your religion.

    • by DragonWriter (970822) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @02:33PM (#29245103)

      We're burning up a lot of the petroleum resources. Which means it goes away. Gone, not available in the future.

      The portion of the petroleum that we're turning into plastic is being preserved in that form.

      The portion of the petroleum that we're turning into plastic is no more "available" or "preserved" as petroleum than is the portion we are turning into carbon dioxide and water by burning it; conversely, the latter is no more "gone" than the former.

      A century from now people might be saying 'thank goodness they saved SOME of the petroleum in the form of all that plastic in the landfills and floating in that big mass on the ocean.'

      Insofar as that "petroleum" remains usable at all (e.g., as potentially recyclable plastic), it would be much better preserved simply by recycling it as plastic, rather than mixing it with garbage and putting it in landfills or dumping it into the ocean.

      Not saying this is a completely thought out notion

      Good.

      Tear into it if it conflicts with your religion.

      You know, it kinds of sends mixed messages when you first admit that you haven't thought through the issue very much, and then go on and preemptively characterize any criticism as being based on your critics' "religion".

    • All the 'biodegradable' packaging just crumbled away.

      Scare quotes or no, that's exactly what it's supposed to do.

      Are you really suggesting that future generations will suffer from a shortage of plastic bottles and packaging?!

  • Civilization (Score:4, Insightful)

    by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @02:07PM (#29244845)
    Somebody has not taken his lessons from playing Civilization...
  • Plastic Mine (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @02:09PM (#29244867) Homepage Journal

    It seems to me that Pacific island nations with very low labor costs, high unemployment and a long tradition of seafaring should be able to find an economical way to round up that trash and recycle it for money.

    • Not many Pacific Islanders can sail long distances anymore. A few in Micronesia, but none in Polynesia. It's becoming a lost art, although fortunately we have things like compasses these days.

      But a lot of it's dissolved, or in bits and pieces the size of fingernails, and kind of spread out. How do you round up that stuff?

      Would be kind of cool, though, if it could be done.
  • by oldhack (1037484) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @02:13PM (#29244921)
    This is why I only buy family-size cheetos, unlike those selfish bastards that buy lunch-size packets.
  • by chefshoemaker (1485151) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @02:45PM (#29245267)
    "Does eating plastic poison plankton?" Of course it does. That is how Sponge Bob and Mr. Krab planned it. They released plasic waste into the oceans to eliminate their competition, Plankton, owner of the Chum Bucket.
  • by bartwol (117819) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @03:05PM (#29245465)

    So garbage is not randomly distributed throughout the oceans, but not surprisingly, it collects in areas of significantly increased density due to prevailing currents. How dense? Not dense enough to be visible to the casual onlooker. Only dense enough to be identified through careful study. So is that the story here?

    No. The truth isn't good enough for a story. The truth isn't good enough to drive political action. So "scientists" lend their names to "authoritative" agencies like NOAA to come up with the story of a 1,700 mile "patch" of garbage. Alternatively (and dramatically), it has been called a "flotilla".

    Yes, there's "a lot" of garbage in the ocean. And, it's a "big" ocean. Look carefully and you'll see that these stories don't do much to help you gauge what this "patch" really is.

    "It's pretty shocking," said Miriam Goldstein.

    "We're afraid at what we're going to find in the South Gyre, but we've got to go there," said Tony Haymet.

    Thank you, researchers Goldstein and Hayment, for your contributions.

    Look carefully through the photographs surrounding this story. Look for the 1,700 mile flotilla of garbage. By my understanding, this thing is a whole lot less dense than the stories would have you believe.

    Here's a good one that I tried to track down:

    "...one paper cited by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates 100,000 marine mammals die trash-related deaths each year."

    This little "factoid" apparently comes from a non-peer-reviewed paper (page 270 here [noaa.gov]) published in 1985 that cites another un-reviewed paper in 1984 (can't find this one...Fowler) that estimated that 50,000 seals had died that year due to "entanglement" primarily in nets, as best I can tell. There's no more on methodology for determining that number, nor how it should be related to overall mammal population and more general "ocean debris."

    Judge the quality of the "science" here for yourself. If you're a critical thinker, it should be apparent that this isn't science at all...it's just another story of human waste.

    • You know, putting scare quotes around the word "scientists" and mocking the NOAA does not actually undermine their expertise. There is no evidence the figure cited in the story comes from the pdf you link, none at all - what did you do, google the noaa website for the number 100000? Apparently not, since the page youre referring to (269) mentions 50,000-90,000 seals killed - not other mammals, and there's no number 100k there at all. But even if you're right and the number is pulled out of an ass, blame

      • by bartwol (117819) on Saturday August 29, 2009 @06:54PM (#29247367)

        I did put some effort into understanding NOAA's role in this campaign, and apparently, a good deal more than you did. See NOAA here [noaa.gov] where the agency explains how it got from the "50,000 to 90,000" quote to their "100,000" propaganda number. Interestingly, if you had indeed taken the time to do exactly as you suggested, i.e. to google "NOAAA 100000", you would have seen this reference as the third link down. I took a much lengthier route, not looking to prove or disprove anything, but simply to understand the basis of the 100,000 estimate.

        As NOAA's explanation indicates, they took the only loosely related range of "50,000 to 90,000", and from there, the 100,000 number emerges without further explanation. Your metaphorical characterization exactly matches my thinking when I saw it: they pulled it out of their asses.

        I have high regard for the scientists of NOAA and their work products. I say this with great sincerity, and not to patronize your point. But in stark contrast with the genuinely authoritative works of NOAA, there are the political ways in which Presidential administrations and non-scientifically motivated high-level administrators of NOAA use its good name to advance political positions. In doing so, they besmirch NOAA's well-deserved reputation for good science, and cause people like me to use quotes around the word "authoritative" when describing the agency's "work" such as this. The politicians are simply taking NOAA's well-earned trust for a lowly political joy ride.

        It occurs to me that I prefer the Bush administration's strategy of suppressing publication of NOAA work products that they found objectionable. If this ocean debris campaign is any indication of the Obama administration's approach, it looks like they will be using the NOAA moniker to publish political opinions as if they are the science of NOAA. This latter approach will be much more damaging to NOAA's scientists; it blatantly misrepresents their voices instead of just making it more difficult for them to be heard.

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