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Earth Science

Expedition To Explore an Alaska-Sized Plastic "Island" 325

Peace Corps Online writes "An expedition called Project Kaisei has departed bound for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a huge 'island' of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean estimated to be the size of Alaska (some estimates place it at ten times that size). The expedition will study the impact of the waste on marine life, and research methods to clean up the vast human-created mess in the Pacific. The BBC quotes Ryan Yerkey, the project's chief of operations: 'Every piece of trash that is left on a beach or ends up in our rivers or estuaries and washes out to the sea is an addition to the problem, so we need people to be the solution.' The garbage patch occupies a large and relatively stationary region of the North Pacific Ocean bound by the North Pacific Gyre, a remote area commonly referred to as the horse latitudes. The rotational pattern created by the North Pacific Gyre draws in waste material from across the North Pacific Ocean, including the coastal waters off North America and Japan. As material is captured in the currents, wind-driven surface currents gradually move floating debris toward the center, trapping it in the region. 'You are talking about quite a bit of marine debris but it's not a solid mass,' says Yerkey. 'Twenty years from now we can't be harvesting the ocean for trash. We need to get it out but we need to also have people make those changes in their lives to stop the problem from growing and hopefully reverse the course.'"
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Expedition To Explore an Alaska-Sized Plastic "Island"

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    They should collect this in barges and burn it for fuel.

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @08:16AM (#28955201) Journal
      If you wanted to do that, pretty much any municipal solid waste dump would be a better bet. This is more like a gigantic patch of watery plastic soup(plus, it's in the middle of the pacific, transport costs would be irksome), dense enough to cause all kinds of trouble for aquatic fauna, tenuous enough to make collection a serious hassle.
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        If it costs less than the prevailing price of crude, then it's a go - hassles be damned!

        Just look at the hassles and cost ($40/barrel) to get oil out of the oil sands in Canada. It says something about our oil supplies when paying $40/barrel to get it out of the ground is considered reasonable.

      • by Sumbius ( 1500703 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @08:58AM (#28955725)
        We (humans) caused that huge mass of plastic to form in the sea by dumping our garbage in the beach or sea and in my opinion we should also try to get it out, or at least stop in from increasing in size. The problem with modern Western society is that we are not ready to start a long term project like that unless it is profitable for us in short term. And that is something that it isn't. It would be a long term money sink with no real market value, and thats why not many seems to care. In a way it feels like we are crapping our own pants because we have more important things to do than go to the toilet.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          I read somewhere that a none insignificant proportion of "sand" on a beach is actually tiny pieces of plastic and is far, far more difficult to clean up.

          Quick Google found some old reports:
 ...Northumbrian coast, every one of them was found to contain microscopic plastic fibres at densities of up to 10,000 per litre of sand. More have been discovered in plankton samples dating back to the 1960s. Already, there may be no such thing as a clea

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Absolutely. "[M]odern Western society" is the problem. Fortunately we have those other societies that will take care of this for us.

          What? No? So then why single out "modern Western society?"

          Oh, because "modern Western society" is the only polluter. Yeah, that's it.

        • by Verdatum ( 1257828 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @10:41AM (#28957411)
          To quote George Carlin, "...and if it's true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: 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."
    • the images one conjures up reading the title is this big area filled with recognizable objects, however reading the wiki article states that the particles that comprise the bulk of the suspected pollution are too small and disperse to be imaged by satellite or aircraft.

      So don't let the title fool you. While there may be occasional large pollutants its not like something your bound to spot on the horizon and just sail to it. Think about it, if it were we would have seen pictures all over the news by now.

      • by Kozz ( 7764 )

        I was also wondering about the "island" suggestion. I listened to a recent Science Friday podcast where it was explained that the average density is a thumbnail-sized piece of plastic per cubic meter. That's pretty much invisible to the eye, yet still a high density.

      • While there may be occasional large pollutants its not like something your bound to spot on the horizon

        I recommend we nuke it from orbit ... just to be sure.
    • by Kupfernigk ( 1190345 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @08:34AM (#28955433)
      What is the actual density and particle size, and how near the surface is it concentrated? Although the Pacific is enormous, it might actually be possible to do something with some kind of filter system, given long enough. After all, the East Anglian fens were drained by pumps running for over 100 years, so long term projects are not exactly unheard of. Something that stops plastic and allows through fish - there's a challenge.
      • by mikael ( 484 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @10:36AM (#28957325) []

        Density of neustonic plastics
        In a 2001 study, researchers (including Moore) found that in certain areas of the patch, concentrations of plastic reached one million particles per square mile.[12] The study found concentrations of plastics at 3.34 pieces with a mean mass of 5.1 milligrams per square meter. In many areas of the affected region, the overall concentration of plastics was greater than the concentration of zooplankton by a factor of seven.

        he floating plastic particles resemble zooplankton, which can be inadvertently consumed by jellyfish. Many of these long-lasting plastics end up in the stomachs of marine birds and animals,[13] including sea turtles, and the Black-footed Albatross.

    • When you burn that kind of plastic, you'll get lots of dioxins produced.

      I don't know about you, but I think I've already mutated enough, thank you.

    • by jgarra23 ( 1109651 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @10:09AM (#28956809)

      Ten times the size of Alaska???

      okay, let's run the numbers.

      Alaska's area is 663,268 sq mi.
      10x Alaska's area would be 6,632,680 sq mi.

      the USA's TOTAL area is 3,794,066 sq mi.
      Russia's TOTAL area is 6,592,800 sq mi.

      You're telling me that some people think there is a mass of garbage in the Pacific Ocean SLIGHTLY LARGER than Russia???

      I'm not saying it's not as bad as it sounds but I really doubt the numbers are right.

  • Hrmm (Score:4, Funny)

    by acehole ( 174372 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @08:15AM (#28955191) Homepage

    Scientists estimate that at least 30% of the bulk is made up of Collectors edition Daikatana boxes.

  • Sealand #2! (Score:5, Funny)

    by rel4x ( 783238 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @08:17AM (#28955219)
    Gentlemen, grab the closest hairdryer. The time has come to melt the plastic, and make our own nation!
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Yvanhoe ( 564877 )
      Humorous tone, but couldn't it be done ? I know that the patch is really a zone of high garbage density that are not that close to each other, but couldn't we aggregate enough of them to build habitats ? Could be one hell of a T.A.Z. I am suspecting that this is one of the informal goals of this expedition of enthusiasts...
      • I am suspecting that this is one of the informal goals of this expedition of enthusiasts...

        That and all the hawt sex on the cruise out there.

        (Would that I had mod points to waste them frivolously on your referencing Bey....)

    • by Dr. Hok ( 702268 )

      Gentlemen, grab the closest hairdryer. The time has come to melt the plastic, and make our own nation!

      Yeah, but not Sealand again. It should be something along the lines of The Raft (Neal Stephenson) or Stateless (Greg Egan).

    • Hairdryer? I'm bald, you insensitive clod!

      I do have a heat gun in the toolbox, though....

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Psmylie ( 169236 ) *

      And lo, a million geeks rushed out to form their own nation

      travelling by whatever craft they could find that would float

      by sailboat and barge, by raft and by dinghy

      And, when they arrived at the great floating sea of garbage

      The call went out:

      "Use your hairdryers, use your heatguns!

      "Push the mass to the center, melt it together!

      "Soon, we shal have an island paradise of our own!"

      And the geeks let up a mighty cheer

      Until one, far in the back, raised the ominous question,

      "So, where's the outlet?"

  • A redundant episode for the upcoming Futurama season.

  • The plastic is not going to waste. It is protecting the inhabitant of Mu from various cosmic and ultraviolet rays.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @08:38AM (#28955481)

    "...The seas eventually break down all this plastic garbage into microscopic particles. ...
    adding just a few millionths of a gram of contaminated microplastics to sediments triggered an 80 percent rise in phenanthrene accumulation in marine worms dwelling in that muck.

    Such worms lie at the base of the food chain,..."

  • by ichthyoboy ( 1167379 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @08:59AM (#28955735)
    Algalita Marine Research Foundation [] have been studying this garbage patch in the Pacific for the last 10 years.
  • What about... (Score:2, Interesting)

    What about just having 1 humongous ship built to take care of the problem, with its front end able to open and scoop up the garbage, then compact it inside itself (like a garbage truck except a boat), and about as wide as it is long. It could just be used once in awhile, or as much as is needed, and it would crush all the garbage into small squares which could then be brought back on smaller boats to the coast and then dropped inside one of the hawaiian volcanos... I know it might be a bit costly, but it wo

    • I'm treading on the absurd but your comment stood out.

      Tools you suggest in order of appearance:

      > 1 humongous ship (It could just be used once in awhile)
      > smaller boats (to the coast) ...btw "to the coast is still ~1000km
      > the hawaiian volcanos (I know it might be a bit costly)
      > a military helicopter (the ones without a bottom)

      Wow....seriously? You are a closeted comedy writer BTW.

      There is no landfill on the planet that could hold all of this debris. Just how big of a boat were you po
  • by mr_gerbik ( 122036 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @09:14AM (#28955981)

    10 times the size of Alaska would make this thing about 1/10th the size of the Pacific. That is pretty huge.. and a little unbelievable.

  • Just the Pacific? (Score:2, Interesting)

    OK, where is the Great Atlantic Garbage patch?
  • Good name (Score:5, Insightful)

    by RealErmine ( 621439 ) <commerce@wor[ ] ['dho' in gap]> on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @09:29AM (#28956197)

    According to Wikipedia: "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also described as the Eastern Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex..."

    Pacific Trash Vortex would be a good name for a band.

  • So, if there's that much trash, composed primarily of plastics, dispersed over a large area of the Pacific... It might make economic sense to modify a ship or two to go out there, skim it off the ocean surface (the top few feet or so) and bring it to shore. There it could be converted back to it's original form, petroleum, run through a gasification plant, or burned as-is in an incinerator for power. Even if it only breaks even with the fuel usage of the ship(s), it still solves the problem, no? (but wo
    • You need more than just a few ships. This thing is actually larger than Alaska. It's surface area, depending on estimates as well as ocean current variations can be as large as continental United States.

      Doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, but you vastly underestimate the scale of the problem. You'll need a hundred skimmer ships, and probably a bunch factory platforms on the edges and spread throughout the patch to process all this crap. We really fucked up on this crap.
  • by The Wooden Badger ( 540258 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @09:32AM (#28956237) Homepage Journal

    Go through and find all the messages in bottles. We've got to see if these poor guys are still alive.

  • How hard could it be to make a giant barge that skims off the crud and harvests it?

  • by Drakkenmensch ( 1255800 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @10:09AM (#28956811)

    This pacific floating plastic formation is mentionned here:

    For my money though, the snake island is WAY more terrifying.

  • Plastic = Profit. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by plasmacutter ( 901737 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:04PM (#28958795)

    Establish a small fleet of permanent skimmer barges.

    The plastic is already broken down into pellets even finer than those delivered to molding factories it's ripe for harvest and sale!

There's no such thing as a free lunch. -- Milton Friendman