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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

If you live on the West Coast or plan on traveling there soon, be forewarned that the once lovely beaches could potentially be littered with large amounts trash and debris. What is to blame? A little thing known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the recent tsunami that struck Japan.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, sometimes referred to as the Pacific Trash Vortex is a gyre (system of rotating ocean currents) of marine litter in the central North Pacific Ocean. The Patch extends over a wide area and is characterized by exceptionally high concentrations of plastics, sludge, and debris that have been trapped in the currents. The gyre’s rotational pattern draws in waste material from across the North Pacific Ocean, including coastal waters off North America and Japan, as seen in this image below.

ocean currentsAn estimated 80% of the garbage comes from land-based sources and about 20% from ships. Ship-generated pollution is a source of concern, since a typical 3,000 passenger cruise ship produces over eight tons of solid waste weekly.

great pacific garbage patch

Shorelines affected from the Patch

Parts of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are heading for the vulnerable shores on the west coast, and there is nothing that can be done to stop it. Experts predict that the coastline of Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii will soon see some nasty debris wash ashore. The cause of this can be attributed to the Japanese tsunami that happened last year. The debris from that disaster is now just making its way across the Pacific, and researchers say that it will continue to beach itself until 2014. Below is a video taken at Kamilo Beach, which has already been affected. The once pristine shoreline has been littered with garbage and debris.

What is being done to stop it?

As much as garbage is unavoidable, there have been recent efforts to help deter and clean up some of the debris. A man named Charles Moore started the Algalita Foundation in 199 with the primary purpose of studying the garbage patch. Researchers analyze samples of the patch by dragging nets through it to check the plastic content in the water and plastic toxicity in the fish they catch. Their results over the years have shown that the plastic content of the ocean is increasing steadily. While Moore’s group doesn’t work to solve the problem, they have opened the door for a group from the Ocean Voyages called Project Kaisei which has taken steps towards creating an innovative cleanup solution.

garbage tsunami wave

The tsunami in Japan is to blame for Hawaii's littered shores.

The plan is to dredge the plastic out of the water and turn it over to recycling companies. While this plan seems pretty simple, it will take a lot of effort and resources to accomplish. The group wants to use the plastic to create fuel, using a process called pyrolysis. The plastic would be heated in a vacuum to a temperature above 550 degrees Fahrenheit  at which point it would start to break down into its components. Those components could then be processed into oil.

While this seems like a very lucrative solution, at least someone has decided to take action to correct the problem. The trash isn’t going anywhere unless they do something, and they can potentially use this garbage of mostly plastic to create fuel and energy. They could be killing two birds with one stone. In a time where energy resources are depleting and trash is accumulating, this might be a great way to create alternative energy, provided it actually works and can be funded properly. There are many skeptics of the project, but experts believe it is not impossible if the group can cover the costs.

How much will it cost? A mere $7 million per pyrolysis setup. They certainly have their work cut out for them.

 via HowStuffWorks  /  Wikipedia

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