AUCKLAND, NZ – Twelve hours after liftoff from San Francisco airport, fifteen hours after my roommate dropped me off at the international terminal, I was hauling my luggage toward my connecting gate when the strap of my laptop bag abruptly tore off.  Fortunately, somewhere in the back of my sleepy brain, I remembered that I’d packed a backup for the cheaply made bag, which hadn’t looked quite up to the task I’d asked of it.  I re-packed books and electronics in a canvas tote, and ditched the ruined mess of plasticy fabric at the next trashcan.

It wasn’t until my next flight had lifted off, treating me to a panoramic view of dawn over the southern Pacific Ocean, that I realized the irony of what I’d done.  Overnight, a plane had carried me across the world’s biggest body of water, containing the world’s largest trash dump, the Pacific Garbage Patch.  In the morning, I had, though indirectly, contributed to its continued expansion.

The Pacific Garbage Patch is really more of a soup than a patch.  It’s a collection of floating plastic bits from around the world, caught in the center of a slow-moving vortex of ocean currents that border the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.  The patch extends, arguably, over an area the size of Hawaii, Texas, or the entire continental United States.  The disagreement stems from both scientific debate – how do you bound something that’s constantly changing shape and location while bobbing along on the open ocean? – and shameless propaganda – even shock value’s bigger in Texas.

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To disentangle myth from fact: The Pacific Garbage Patch is not a floating landfill.  Despite media portrayals that borrow pictures from trash-choked harbors, the Patch is comprised primarily of microscopic plastic particles, the breakdown products of larger plastic pieces that made their way into the world’s oceans.  The patch is still a warning sign.  In 1997, when Charles Moore found himself sailing through a sea spotted by bobbing bottles and chock-full of plastic pellets, he was shocked.  Like all of us, he’d been tossing his plastic waste into garbage bags meant for terrestrial dumps, and then forgetting about it.  Yet here was this vast expanse of escaped human refuse, collecting thousands of miles from its nearest human source.

Where else are human waste products accumulating, out of sight, out of mind?

There are at least five marine garbage patches decorating Earth’s oceanic gyres.  Like the Eastern Pacific one that Moore discovered, they’re comprised entirely of plastic, the one thing that won’t rot or rust away in the saltwater environment.  Instead, plastic slowly photodegrades, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces which, a la Zeno’s Paradox, never quite go away.  

Though a huge net or plastic drum is more visually disturbing, the smallest bits of plastic are the most dangerous.  Their weathered edges absorb toxic chemicals like DDT (a pesticide outlawed in the United States) and PCBs (also banned by Congress), then deliver them to planktonic life when the plastic pieces are mistaken as food. Because plastics are man-made, animal digestive tracts can’t break them down, so both large pieces and residues accumulate in the food web, transitioning from zooplankton, to juvenile fish, to larger fish, and even to birds.  

In deference to the permanence of plastic, when I spent ten days aboard the Sea Education Association’s teaching vessel, the Corwith Cramer, we carefully separated and stored every bit of plastic trash.  The rest of our waste, once we’d sailed far enough from land, was unceremoniously pitched overboard as oceanic compost.  By the end of the trip, in spite of having forty-odd people aboard, we’d accumulated surprisingly little plastic.  But when I thought about the fact that our trash-bag-full would be around for time immemorial – likely longer than the human race will persist on the planet – it seemed a lot bigger.

Somehow that lesson faded quickly when I returned to shore.  On land, I throw out plastic every day – candy wrappers, packaging, the odd ripped shoulderbag.  I rarely think about what that plastic means to the planet.

Of course, plastic production isn’t the only way humans are making long-term changes to the planet.  But, if we can manage to keep in mind the connection between our everyday expendables and the mountains of trash that travel to landfills every year, plastics might be the best everyday reminder that we have.

After all, it’s hard to envision the wild landscapes that predate our suburbs.  It’s difficult to call to mind Arctic oil rigs and strip-mined mountaintops we haven’t seen.  And it’s impossible to taste or smell the changing amounts of carbon dioxide in the air.

So maybe it’s time to make personal plastics-only piles, and watch them grow in a corner, day after day.  At least we’ll be keeping our contribution to the Pacific Garbage Patch right where we can see it.