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Congress acts to clean up the ocean

A garbage patch in the Pacific is double the size of Texas. The president is likely to sign the cleanup law.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 11, 2006

A biologically rich coral island chain in the Pacific Ocean northwest of Hawaii, which President Bush designated as a marine national monument, is under assault from floating garbage ranging from plastic bottlecaps to baby diapers.

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Hailed by environmentalists as one of the president's most enduring contributions to the environment, the Montana-sized monument includes uninhabited islands home to some 7,000 marine species, at least a quarter of which are found nowhere else on earth.

But the new national monument also resides on the edge what marine scientists call the great "eastern garbage patch": a section of slowly rotating Pacific Ocean currents – or gyre – double the size of Texas that acts as a giant garbage collector.

Sitting between Hawaii and northern California, the patch's sluggish currents wash onto the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. That 1,200-mile-long island chain north of Kauai acts as the teeth of a giant comb, straining onto its otherwise pristine beaches and coral reefs floating trash, such as syringes, bags, six-pack rings, and tons of fishing nets and other gear.

Concern about the problem has risen to such a level that Congress has acted on it. On Sept. 27 the House passed a bill that would give a lift to struggling ad-hoc efforts to clear debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Their move follows the Senate's approval of the legislation last year. Observers are optimistic that the bill will be finalized, and Mr. Bush will sign it into law after the November election.

It would not be a moment too soon, experts say. About 3 million tons of the trash floating in the garbage patch is plastic, estimates Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, Ca., who has traversed the gyre on research expeditions.

Samples he collected in a recent study showed that there were more tiny bits of plastic by weight than there were plankton per cubic meter of sea water.

"It's a toilet that never flushes, but just keeps accumulating," he says of the patch. "If you're an organism in this area you have six times as much chance of bumping into something plastic as you do something natural."

Globally, millions of tons of trash enter the ocean each year. Between 60 and 80 percent of it is land-based, washing into streams and rivers and finally the ocean from landfills, storm water discharges, litter, and sewage overflows.

The rest is from ocean-based operations, including fishing gear, junk from oil and offshore mineral exploration, illegal offshore dumping, and shipping containers washed overboard.

A container of thousands of plastic yellow toy ducks bound from China to the US was lost in the Pacific Ocean in 1992, but made news in 2003 when the ducks began washing up in Europe. Examples of trash slopping onto US beaches have included Nike running shoes, Lego building blocks, umbrella handles, and hockey gloves, experts say.

Old "ghost" fishing nets adrift in the sea and smaller plastic objects are special hazards for marine birds and mammals because birds tend to gobble colored plastic until they die. These hazards can have lasting effects on the monument since many species call the region home.