Yes, that’s right, there is a swirling vortex out there and it is definitely of doom. Currently making a massive galaxy-like rotation in the North Pacific is a vortex of trash somwhere between 700,000 km2 and 15 million km2, most of it plastic. Because of the intense confluence of ocean currents in the North Pacific, trash from all over the world is sucked into this central location. Determining the exact size of the Swirling Vortex of Doom has been difficult (thus the massive difference between the two estimations) as it appears that Japan and America each have their own respective trash shadow-continent. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the two masses of plastic garbage are combining to form a galactic spiral of waste that will stretch from Asia to North America.
The Japan Times recently covered Japanese efforts to study the severe environmental impacts having that much plastic in the ocean. Specifically, the biggest issue is not the presence of plastic mass in the ocean but the conditions that result from over 100 million tons of plastic suffering photodegridation. It becomes a hazardous chemical soup. Plastic also continues to be plastic no matter how much it degrades; it just gets smaller and smaller. Last year, the New York Times did a great piece on the issue of trash in the North Pacific, and NPR have also reported on the garbage “patch.” “Patch” only diminishes the size of the vortex and the myriad unavoidable environmental issues that stem from it, yet one cannot think of more accurate words without being hyperbolic for something so immense escapes language. It’s like trying to comprehend how many stars are in the universe.
Right now it seems unlikely that any one nation will take responsibility for the garbage. The truth is that the continent-sized drift of rubbish belongs to the world; it is the underworld to our late-twentieth century world-wide rise to consumerism. With mountains of imported high-tech garbage piling up in Ghana, and entire cities, cultures, and ways of life being carved out of a smoldering mega-city land fill in Lagos, Nigera, our collective human waste is colonizing the developing world, choking the sea, and will eventually impede our ability to produce. In the end, all we will have is our own garbage.
Possibly the only option now is to prevent jettisoning more garbage into the sea, but that will require a unified world culture, much less policy, of reusing, recycling, and an end to disposable products. However, this all assumes that we continue to produce and consume at a rate comparable to our fat years through the 80s, 90s and today. As I said in “No Better Time to Be Alive,” if there is a crisis imminent, it will result in the world shrinking, and that means production will shrink, as will waste. So that’s good…right?At the moment, however, the Swirling Vortex portends the doom of life in the sea (much of which we eat), and of our ability to raise the kind of resources and capital to tackle perhaps the largest environmental disaster ever. Our time may have passed.