This is Part II in my series of articles on debris and human artifacts floating in the world’s oceans–flotsam, to use an old nautical term. Part I, about the grisly mystery of severed feet that have washed up on the shores of the Pacific Northwest for the past 8 years, is here. This series was inspired by an incident in my own life back in July 2008 when I was crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2. I observed a man’s dress shirt floating by the ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and wondered how it got there and how long it was out there. This got me thinking about flotsam in general.

If you keep up with environmental issues (and you should), you’ve probably heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Sadly there are Great Garbage Patches in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans too, though the Pacific, being the largest, is the one everybody talks about. Intuitively it makes sense. As we manufacture more and more plastic–the amount of plastic produced on Earth doubles every 10 years–more and more of it is destined to end up in our oceans. Since many plastic items float, and large global currents called gyres converge in various large areas of the oceans, it stands to reason that you would expect to see at least some plastic debris floating in these areas. In fact the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was predicted by NOAA oceanographers in 1988. That means you should be able to take a boat out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean and encounter great floating islands of plastic garbage. Right?


This is what the Pacific Garbage Patch looks like. Really.

Wrong. The biggest popular misconception about plastic debris in the ocean is that it’s relatively intact, and that one can find 2-liter soda bottles, plastic Safeway bags and the heads of old Barbie dolls bobbing around out there. The truth is surprisingly more disturbing. While undoubtedly there are millions of pieces of relatively-intact plastic implements floating in the world’s oceans–the saddening photo at the top of this article of a marine bird rotting away to reveal the plastic that killed it is proof of that–the real problem is that most of the plastic in the world’s oceans is very small, much of it invisible. This makes the problem even worse than you might think.

To understand this, you need to know how plastic gadgets are manufactured in the first place, because their deconstruction in the ocean is basically the reverse process of their construction in a factory. Many plastic goods begin life as great quantities of tiny raw plastic pellets, called nurdles, which are purchased from manufacturers and then melted down and molded into whatever the final manufacturer wants to make–toothpaste caps, TV remotes, Star Wars action figures, whatever. Tanker cars full of nurdles cris-cross the world’s railways every day. If a plastic good ends up floating in the ocean, the pounding of waves and the effects of light (many plastics, especially shopping bags, are photodegradable) breaks them into smaller and smaller pieces. Essentially, they become nurdles again, or even smaller bits than that–microscopic nodules of plastic that hover in the upper reaches of the ocean and begin mingling with plankton and becoming ingested by forms of marine life. The chemicals in plastics build up in the body tissues of marine organisms. Obviously this has a depressing effect on marine ecosystems. And if you eat fish, you’re ingesting this crap too.

Thus, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not visible, for instance, on Google Earth, and unless you looked very closely and took samples of the water, you could sail through it in a boat and never know you were in the middle of it. This presents a somewhat difficult political and environmental problem. It’s hard enough to mobilize significant resources to clean up existing environmental pollution, especially if all or a significant part of those resources are expected to come from public funds. But acid rain eating away buildings or rivers that catch on fire from pollutants are something the public can see. Who’s going to marshal billions of dollars and negotiate international agreements–the Garbage Patch is in international waters–to go clean up a problem that’s literally invisible, especially when nobody can make money from the effort?


This is how your comb, cell phone case or 2-liter Coke starts life…and, if it winds up in the ocean, how it finishes.

From this standpoint, it would probably be much better if you could go out there and see plastic bottles and shopping bags floating around. When they’re not too busy destroying priceless cultural artifacts, perhaps Greenpeace would make heart-rending YouTube videos with photos of ugly plastic litter in the ocean to try to mobilize people to give money for it. But that’s not happening. The shocking amounts of plastic flotsam in the world’s oceans have gotten so shocking precisely because this is an environmental problem that is unlikely to be cleaned up by anybody, at any time. There have been ingenious schemes floated (no pun intended) to clean up the plastic pollution, of course, but the problem is always the same as it is with environmental issues: nobody wants to put up the money, because nobody is going to get a tangible economic benefit out of it. Add this to the list of environmental problems that are made insoluble by the application of global capitalism.

I wish I had a happier ending for this article, but I simply don’t. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is most likely going to grow, and keep growing, for the foreseeable future. Until environmental problems are taken seriously for their own sake by the world’s governments and economies, the great invisible cloud of floating plastic in the ocean is likely to become the single largest man-made object on Earth–if it isn’t already.

As promised last night, I’d give a nod to the heavy metal band Flotsam & Jetsam; here is their song “Straight to Hell” from the Dreams of Death album.

In Part III (the conclusion of this series), I’ll be a little more upbeat, and talk about some ocean flotsam that has turned out to be very positive and interesting.

The photo of nurdles is by Flickr user gentlemanrook and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.