The great garbage swirl

The horse latitudes are known for dead wind. They lie between the 30th and 35th latitudinal parallels, across the globe, above and below the equator. Their name supposedly comes from the days when Spanish merchant ships, bound for the West Indies, would practically screech to a halt upon crossing the area’s threshold and, to lighten their load and conserve water, would push overboard the horses they had brought along. (The Doors’ Jim Morrison wrote a creepy poem about the practice for the album Strange Days.)

While they’re no longer the gravesite of countless unfortunate horses, the horse latitudes are now home to a new menace born of unfettered commercial striving: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

This dry, windless area is dominated by the Northern Pacific Gyre, a wind current that encircles an area twice the size of the continental United States. This ribbon of wind traps floating debris, mostly plastic, in a perpetual clockwise swirl. Part of this massive patch sits between Hawaii and the Mainland.

Rich Owen of the Environmental Cleanup Coalition, a Maui-based organization that is launching the beginnings of a cleanup effort for the area, said he first heard of the gyre from a friend.

“Literally my stomach just started getting in knots,” the scuba instructor says. “I felt ill.”

Owen had noticed an alarming volume of plastic in and around the water during a trip to Southeast Asia.

“I actually saw a fish shit a piece of plastic when I was in Bali,” he says.

It was enough to inspire Owen to look into the patch and ways to clean it up. The ECC’s Gyre Cleanup Project is still in the larval stage, but a public awareness campaign, including a benefit this Saturday at the Iao Theater, is quickly spreading the word.

“When I look at the Earth as a whole I look at the ocean as the earth’s blood,” Rich said. “It’s where life began.”

It takes less than a year for trash to travel from Asian waters to the patch and up to five years from the America’s west coast. Eighty percent of it comes from land; the other 20 percent comes from seafaring vessels. But it all gets trapped in the horse latitudes.

Items found include hard hats, toothbrushes, bottle caps and kayaks. Much of the debris has broken down into tiny fragments, researchers say, and fish and birds in the area are ingesting them.

Sea captain and ocean researcher Charles Moore said in a 2008 NPR interview that the area of the garbage patch itself is estimated to be twice the size of Texas, and growing every day. Moore motored through it during a trans-Pacific sailboat race in the early ‘90s and was appalled by what he saw, saying that, in the week that it took to pass through the area he “was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.”

Yet you can’t see it in satellite photos, according to Algalita.com, the Web site of the organization for which Moore conducts research, because the debris is more “soup” than continent. Instead of forming a trash island, a literal wasteland on the surface, plastic fragments permeate the sea to great depths. And researchers say it doubles in size every time they go out there, which is on average every two years.

Algalita is studying the impacts of such a high concentration of plastic—and the toxic chemicals some plastics emit as a result of photodegredation, or breaking down—on the marine life in the area, among other things.

While the full extent of the patch’s detriment has yet to be quantified, Owen says it’s time to get to work.

“Leaving the trash in the ocean is not an option,” he says.

The ECC will be launching a research effort to find the most effective means of cleaning this menacingly large environmental hazard. Among Owen’s ideas are nets that would catch the larger pieces but allow marine life to escape. Owen says that researchers will also explore ways to repopulate the area.

But before all of this happens, Owen’s nonprofit will be raising funds like crazy. 

Saturday’s event will not just serve to educate the public by way of a PowerPoint presentation. He’s also got a killer musical lineup slated. Performers like George Kahomoku Jr., Divino, Blane Lyon and Alana Cini will all do their part, and local artists will be selling their work to benefit the project.

It’s an unfathomably huge task, one that nonbelievers say can’t be tackled. Some researchers say our best bet is to curb our plastic use. But Owen isn’t fazed by critics or the hugeness of this undertaking. Maybe someday soon, the horse latitudes will be known for something positive. MTW

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