About that giant mass of plastic floating around in the ocean…

May 24, 2007 at 8:09 pm (frightening things, injustice) (, , , )

The last time it was mentioned on this blog, the swirling mass of plastic, now known by scientists as the “Eastern Garbage Patch,” was reported to be about the size of Texas, but growing rapidly. Now, I’m reading an article that claims it’s TWICE the size of Texas. It’s hundreds of miles long.

At the same time, all over the globe, there are signs that plastic pollution is doing more than blighting the scenery; it is also making its way into the food chain. Some of the most obvious victims are the dead seabirds that have been washing ashore in startling numbers, their bodies packed with plastic: things like bottle caps, cigarette lighters, tampon applicators, and colored scraps that, to a foraging bird, resemble baitfish. (One animal dissected by Dutch researchers contained 1,603 pieces of plastic.) And the birds aren’t alone. All sea creatures are threatened by floating plastic, from whales down to zooplankton. There’s a basic moral horror in seeing the pictures: a sea turtle with a plastic band strangling its shell into an hourglass shape; a humpback towing plastic nets that cut into its flesh and make it impossible for the animal to hunt. More than a million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals, and countless fish die in the North Pacific each year, either from mistakenly eating this junk or from being ensnared in it and drowning.

Bad enough. But Moore soon learned that the big, tentacled balls of trash were only the most visible signs of the problem; others were far less obvious, and far more evil. Dragging a fine-meshed net known as a manta trawl, he discovered minuscule pieces of plastic, some barely visible to the eye, swirling like fish food throughout the water. He and his researchers parsed, measured, and sorted their samples and arrived at the following conclusion: By weight, this swath of sea contains six times as much plastic as it does plankton.

Six times as much plastic as plankton! And don’t think humans are immune, either.

This statistic is grim—for marine animals, of course, but even more so for humans. The more invisible and ubiquitous the pollution, the more likely it will end up inside us. And there’s growing—and disturbing—proof that we’re ingesting plastic toxins constantly, and that even slight doses of these substances can severely disrupt gene activity. “Every one of us has this huge body burden,” Moore says. “You could take your serum to a lab now, and they’d find at least 100 industrial chemicals that weren’t around in 1950.” The fact that these toxins don’t cause violent and immediate reactions does not mean they’re benign: Scientists are just beginning to research the long-term ways in which the chemicals used to make plastic interact with our own biochemistry.


On land, things are equally gruesome. “Fertility rates have been declining for quite some time now, and exposure to synthetic estrogen—especially from the chemicals found in plastic products—can have an adverse effect,” says Marc Goldstein, M.D., director of the Cornell Institute for Repro-ductive Medicine. Dr. Goldstein also notes that pregnant women are particularly vulnerable: “Prenatal exposure, even in very low doses, can cause irreversible damage in an unborn baby’s reproductive organs.” And after the baby is born, he or she is hardly out of the woods. Frederick vom Saal, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia who specifically studies estrogenic chemicals in plastics, warns parents to “steer clear of polycarbonate baby bottles. They’re particularly dangerous for newborns, whose brains, immune systems, and gonads are still developing.” Dr. vom Saal’s research spurred him to throw out every polycarbonate plastic item in his house, and to stop buying plastic-wrapped food and canned goods (cans are plastic-lined) at the grocery store. “We now know that BPA causes prostate cancer in mice and rats, and abnormalities in the prostate’s stem cell, which is the cell implicated in human prostate cancer,” he says. “That’s enough to scare the hell out of me.” At Tufts University, Ana M. Soto, M.D., a professor of anatomy and cellular biology, has also found connections between these chemicals and breast cancer.

Referring to the tiny plastic particles that are now everywhere, Charles Moore says “It’s not the big trash on the beach. It’s the fact that the whole biosphere is becoming mixed with these plastic particles. What are they doing to us? We’re breathing them, the fish are eating them, they’re in our hair, they’re in our skin.”

Though marine dumping is part of the problem, escaped nurdles and other plastic litter migrate to the gyre largely from land. That polystyrene cup you saw floating in the creek, if it doesn’t get picked up and specifically taken to a landfill, will eventually be washed out to sea. Once there, it will have plenty of places to go: The North Pacific gyre is only one of five such high-pressure zones in the oceans. There are similar areas in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. Each of these gyres has its own version of the Garbage Patch, as plastic gathers in the currents. Together, these areas cover 40 percent of the sea. “That corresponds to a quarter of the earth’s surface,” Moore says. “So 25 percent of our planet is a toilet that never flushes.”

I don’t know what to say.



  1. Daisy said,

    What the hell is that picture of?

  2. Emily said,

    It’s a turtle that got stuck in a plastic ring (probably when it was smaller) that made it’s shell grow unnaturally in that shape. I think.

  3. Daisy said,


  4. Jessie said,

    the picture is seriously disturbing, and so it the message. I was just wondering today about plastics… they don’t biodegrade. Our bodies are made out of plastic and suffering.

  5. Daisy said,

    Our bodies are made out of plastic and suffering.

    Let’s put that on a shirt.

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  7. jenn said,

    this is terrible. when will humans realize that the time of the “throw-away society”
    should end? if it was a kid in that picture, all hell would break loose. But because it’s a turtle, people think, ” who cares?”
    we should care; this is the future of every living thing on this planet.

  8. Scott said,

    You don’t really have to worry about the rest of the 6.5 billion people – just focus on the actions you take. When you find another person eager to learn you can be ready to help them understand healthier choices available to them as well.

    The planet may not be ready to make a wholesale change, but it sure sound like a lot of people are ready for more information. That’s a great next step if you ask me.

    Definitely borrow a copy of “Cradle to Cradle” for a great explanation of how to think outside the disposable lifestyle “box”.

  9. bret said,

    I have a suggestion… Let’s inform the Chinese gov’t about this mass of plastic… They could then go mine this plastic and manufacture it into cheap little plastic toys, playstations, and other doo-dads. The U. S. consumers would then buy them up like there’s no tomorrow and store them in our closets, garages and self storage units… Problem solved…

  10. Inside the stomach of an albatross. « Our Descent Into Madness said,

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  11. Our bodies are made out of plastic and suffering « Gay for Gabriel Byrne said,

    […] time – it’s also a fitting illustration to the post over at Our Descent into Madness about the plastic litter that fills our oceans, damaging the wildlife in process. I’m getting more and more convinced that the far best […]

  12. Jake said,

    This is sooo terribal people really need to start taking action and caring about whats happening to our world!! :(

  13. jennifer said,

    I want to do something…….besides be angry and continue about my day until someone I love gets sick. I’ve got some ideas….maybe you do to?.

  14. Emily said,

    What are your ideas, jennifer?

  15. angela said,

    Start with yourself, do what you can, I am no longer using the plastic bags that are provided when you purchase something. I use my own canvas bags or carry my items, esp if there is a small quantity. Any other ideas, Jennifer? Let’s do something!

  16. FREESPEAK said,

  17. tricia said,

    I dont think many people even know about the garbage floating in our ocean. this should be on the front pages of every newspaper and all over the internet. I am sickened and saddened by this. We are all to blame. Every water bottle every pop bottle, every plastic diaper, everything that is made of plastic or styro foam… that we use for convience…. we are all guilty for this horrible mess we are leaving on this planet. I have purchased many reuseable bags that the stores are now selling. I gave some out for Christmas gifts. That is just a small step I know but at least it is a start. We have beach clean up days why not Ocean clean up vessils? What kind of world are we leaving to our kids and Grandchildren?

  18. Matt said,

    Freakin horrible Your right it should be all over the news maybe we all would do something.

  19. Shane said,

    Do whatever you can. At the least, it’s the right thing to do even if it is inconvenient, like recycling, walking, cooking, sewing, gardening. However, unless we go back to the way we lived before industrialization and the need for oil, gas to keep it going, or else come up with some miracle invention that sustainably converts all of our trash into something benign, Earth will get dirtier and sicker. While Earth may eventually get so sick that people won’t be able to survive here, once we’re all gone (or enough of us anyway), She’ll make a full recovery. And so She waits.

  20. Phil said,

    My dear fellow humans ~

    I am a diligent recycler.
    Sometimes I base my decision to buy something on whether I can recycle the packaging material or not.
    I like those packing peanuts that are made from starch. They dissolve in water.
    Styrofoam packing peanuts can also be dissolved in this stuff made from citrus:


    So, paper or plastic bags? Is paper friendlier for the environment? You might think so. I did until today.
    87 TRILLION trees could be saved every year if NO ONE used paper bags.
    But what about plastic bags? They last forever!
    Blame the Litterbugs (see below) who just let them blow away in the wind. SCHMUCKS!!!!
    Some of the first plastic bags we ever made – 40 years ago – are still floating around the planet.

    You can find them on the bottom of the ocean still in perfect condition!
    There is a floating island of plastic in the Pacific ocean the size of Texas. No, I am not kidding.
    Evil stuff. Animals eat them, choke and die by the hundreds of thousands.

    Plastic bags are easy to recycle if only everyone did it. Look at this interactive thing. It’s very interesting:


    So here is what I think. Always get plastic.
    Put every plastic bag into another plastic bag and when it’s full,
    set it out with the other recycling stuff – cans, bottles, etc.

    You ARE recycling, aren’t you?
    You have to Recycle, Return or Reuse and don’t be a Litter Bug.
    Hey, we can do something about the mess we’ve been making.
    Would you copy all this and paste it into a new email and send it to everyone in your contact list?

    Good planets are hard to find.

    Peace and Love ~ Phil

  21. Cierra said,

    This is what happens when people litter in the oceans. and to me it is quite disturbing and to others it might not be. if this appens to all the wild life in the oceans then they will become endangered and eventually they will be extinct and then what will we do. absolutly nothing.

  22. Jacob said,

    We will never destroy the planet, it’s really quite the opposite. If we keep this up long enough, it will be the planet that destroys us, which will be for the best.

  23. nwlimited said,

    Our world is too dependent on mass quantities of useless and re-useless items…sad testimony to that.

  24. snake said,

    wow… sad to see the tortoise… i always cut any plastic rings before i toss them away… even the plastic that holds 6-packs together… :(

  25. Jamez said,

    It’s much worse than that folks.
    The molecules used to make polycarbonate plastics are very similar to estrogen molecules. Estrogen is a hormone which purpose is to signal cells. Cells have receptor sites on them, so that hormone molecules can attach to them and give them a signal to grow or stop growing ect.
    These molecules used to make plastics have a weak bond so they come apart after awhile (photodegrade) and now you have these things floating around all over the place.
    These estrogen looking like molecules attach themselves to cells which have estrogen receptors on them like Breast cells and Pancreas cells giving them a much stronger signal than nature intended resulting in things like cancer and insulin resistance.
    The multi billion dollar plastic industry does not want us to know this. In fact, it makes great efforts to keep us confused by controlling media, setting up distracting breast cancer organizations (pink ribbon), ect.
    They could stop making polycarbonate plastics right now, like they have with baby bottles, but there ‘s already so much plastic on earth it probably will not make any difference.

  26. Jeremy said,

    I have a perfect solution..

    We can use these plastic materials, and other sources at our disposal to destroy half the human race.. Or perhaps, enslave them to clean up the oceans, before disposing of them. The great thing about human carcasses is they ARE biodegradable..

  27. Let’s be a Civilised, Considerate and Courteous Citizen « Zachary Ong Wei Ren said,

  28. Rachelle Roth said,

    I smell funny, and I clash today!!!!!YAY ME!!!!!!!!!!

  29. Jeff Munger said,

    I think we should FORCE all of the companies that produce plastic to donate money to create a PLASTIC EATING FLOATING BOEY that simply floats around on the ochean eating up plastic unitil it gets full then it uses GPS to find the nearest recycling center where it proceeds to dump it’s contents where they belong. After about 10,000 years its job would be complete and we could put it in a museum and name it after me.


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