November 29, 2011

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch : Is it really a Vast trash dump?

Note : Today's topic has nothing much to do with personal finances.   

Have you heard about the  so called Great Pacific Garbage Patch?   Theres a large amount of trash floating around out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.   By some accounts there is a giant pile of trash the size of America floating in the middle of the Ocean.   If you picture this in your mind you get an image of a vast expanse of junk for as far as the eye can see.  

Sometimes when people talk about the Giant garbage patch you'll see close up images showing a bunch of garbage floating in water.   In fact you really only see close up images of floating trash or pictures of individual pieces of trash.   Worse yet if you do a Google search for images for "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" then you get a lot of pictures of piles of trash floating near beaches which certainly are NOT in the middle of the ocean.    If this garbage patch was so big and dense then wouldn't we be seeing real aerial photos of vast amounts of trash?   Why only close up or fake pictures?   The reason is that the amount of trash out there isn't all that much relative to the vast size of the ocean.    There aren't large clumps of junk nor vast areas covered in trash.  

How much trash is there really?    How dense is the trash really?   

From some accounts the garbage patch is supposed to be 2 times the size of Texas.   Or maybe not, it could be only twice the size of Hawaii.    Texas versus Hawaii is a pretty large margin of error in the estimates.  

How much garbage there is is another measure.   According to this report there is 5,114 g / km sq in the area.   I'm not sure how accurate that measurement is but its one of the only ones I could find.

Disclaimer:  I'm using rough math here.   I'm starting with estimates ranging from the size of Texas to the size of Hawaii so I think that rough figures are good enough.

For discussion sake lets assume that its twice as big as Texas and the 5,114 g/km sq figure is accurate.   Texas is 695,622 km sq. or twice that is 1,391,244 km sq total.  Then that would mean there is 7,114,821 kg or about 15.6 Million pounds of waste floating in the area.   From Wikipedia, : "Americans generate more waste than any other nation in the world with 4.5 pounds of municipal solid waste (MSW) per person per day" So per person we put out 4.5 pounds of trash a day. There are around 300 million people so thats 1.35 Billion pounds of trash a day.   The mass of the trash floating in the Great garbage patch is equal to roughly 1% of Americas daily trash output.   That could be a worst case scenario.    

Of course by comparing the amount of trash to American trash output I'm not meaning to imply that all the trash came from America either.   Many countries border the Pacific and contribute to the trash and much of the trash is from ships not owned by America.



Lets go back to that 5,114 g / km sq figure.   5,114 g in a Km squared is not a lot.    KM squared is a very large area.  Thats 1,000,000 square meters.  That means theres roughly 0.005 grams per squared meter.   A gram is actually a very small amount so 0.005 grams is extremely small.   A zip lock bag ways about 1-2 grams.  So we're talking about a piece of plastic which is about 1/200th to 1/400th the size of a 3" square zip lock bag.   That would amount to something about 30 sq milimeters.  Or a speck of plastic roughly 5x6 mm.

Lets see what a 5 mm x 6mm fleck of plastic looks like. 
Here the size of the average amount of trash per square meter compared to a penny: 



I put the speck of plastic in a field that is too scale proportional to 1 meter square and it looks like the picture below.  This gives you an idea of the density of trash in the Giant Garbage Patch. :



Well it kinda looks like that when I size the image so it can actually fit in this blog it makes the bit of plastic sooo tiny that you can't see it so I had to circle it in orange so something would actually show up.

One research expedition by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation traveled 2,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic and reported  "During the expedition, 100 pieces of floating marine debris were sighted."  On average thats 1 item spotted per 20 miles traveled.   Keep in mind this is a research foundation which is trying to bring attention to the problem so they aren't likely to under report the amount of trash.  Hardly a vast see of junk.    But again it should be stressed that much of the trash in the ocean is small bits and a lot of it is below the surface.  

There isn't a vast giant pile of trash floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.    There is however tons and tons of plastic bits that are floating out in the ocean.   The ocean his so vast that those little plastic bits are more often tiny bits of plastic or maybe a single discarded mylar balloon every few miles.

Please don't misunderstand me.... any amount of plastic floating around in the ocean is not a good thing.   The more plastic out there the more harm it does to fish and wildlife and contaminates the environment.

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