Planet Earth or Planet Plastic? The World’s Largest Landfill Site

When you imagine the world’s biggest landfill site, our minds turn towards less developed countries whose populations and wealth are booming faster than their governments can create managed waste sites. We see teetering pyramids of plastic and rotting food expanding as far as the eye can see. Yet what if I told you earth’s largest dump is actually very difficult to see by eye and, that despite being three times the size of France, it remains elusively invisible from space. What if I told you it wasn’t even on land?

Gyres are a natural phenomenon. They are large circular ocean currents caused by earth’s rotation and prevailing winds. Essentially, they are vortexes which form in large areas of open ocean between significant land masses. Our oceans contain five major subtropical gyres which lie in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, spinning clockwise in the Northern hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the Southern hemisphere. It is in one of these enchanting sounding whirlpools that our largest landfill resides.

The North Pacific Garbage Patch, as it is so frequently named, lies in the doldrums between California and Japan but it is not an artificial island comprised of compacted plastic with the odd palm tree as you might imagine. Instead it is a frequently moving and shapeshifting plastic soup made largely of microplastics with the odd piece of mega-litter such as reels of old fishing line or maybe even a chunk of washing machine. While the presence of this mostly plastic atrocity had been rumoured in the 1970s, it was only discovered in 1997 by accident as Charles Moore stumbled across a peculiar sea surface slick. The majority of this debris is plastic as, unlike wood and paper, it is not biodegradable. In fact, in this most famous gyre, it is thought that 80,000 tonnes of plastic circle the waves, the equivalent weight of 500 jumbo jets. Still sounding hard to imagine? This single ocean garbage patch contains an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, that’s 250 for each person on the planet. 250 of our toothbrushes, water bottles and shopping bags are now swirling around not far from the coast of Hawaii and that’s not counting the seven other garbage patches worldwide.

Rubbish which we hastily throw away on land travels down to the shoreline where each turn of the tide sweeps it out onto the horizon, with sturdy, lightweight and buoyant plastic pieces carried by the strong undertow of currents into these gyres. In the North Pacific, it can take objects 10 years to make a complete lap of the track. While these ocean-going vagrants traverse our seas, sunlight, crashing waves and corrosive salt attack their surface, slowly breaking them down into smaller and smaller pieces which are all the more easy to mistake for natural food sources such as fish eggs and plankton. In what we perceive to be an area full of majestic giants and tropical white sand atolls, plastic outnumbers food by many orders of magnitude while the Laysan albatrosses living on the few paradise-like atolls are inadvertently feeding their young lighters, pen lids and bottle tops. Yet even for the creatures who do avoid starvation, the toxic chemical film smothering 84% of gyre plastic means they carry the burden of our synthetic legacy with them, passing our toxins up through the food chain to great predators such as killer whales and great white sharks.

For Kamilo Beach in Hawaii, its position on the edge of the North Pacific gyre has guided its past and now its future too. In the 1940s, the nearby gyre currents provided the beach with lavish quantities of fish and wood flotsam which was used for canoes and some of the first ever handcrafted surfboards. It was even a place where broken hearted families came in search of their beloved who were lost at sea. Today however, the beach’s bounty is a rather less enchanting story as enormous mounds of plastic pile themselves on the weather-beaten shores. Despite being miles from land, let alone industry, one researcher found over 500 nurdles per square foot of sand, with another 2,000 pieces of various plastic also in the mix.

The North Pacific Gyre is the most talked about ocean landfill due to its sheer size, yet there are seven other marine dumps with another one expected to form soon in the remote Arctic Barents Sea where the ocean current reaches a dead end; a drop off point. So can we have hope? Several years ago, a young Dutch innovator designed a system which aimed to scoop up large amounts of rubbish by making the most of these handily arranged large piles of plastic. His system, trialled in 2018, uses natural currents to sweep a large U-shaped net through the ocean, acting as a natural coastline by collecting all kinds of flotsam and jetsam. While the trial was not entirely successful as much of the collected plastic was spilt back into the ocean, they still manage to salvage nearly 4,500 pounds of pollutants which will now be recycled back on dry land. While opinions on this technology remain divided, it wouldn’t be the first time that innovation and technology has pleasantly surprised us. In the meantime, drones are increasingly used to identify areas of high density waste which allows us to target ocean clean ups.

However, 40% of the world’s oceans lie within these trash-collecting gyres, an area almost all the same size as all the land mass on earth; can we really create a solution for a problem this big? For us mere individuals, the same plastic eradicating actions can still make a large difference if we all join together. Some of the items found in gyres were manufactured in the 1970s and so unless we quickly curb our use of this pollutant, the size of gyres will only continue to grow. In fact, 80% of the waste in our oceans comes from land so by reducing the packaging you buy and supporting plastic bans, we can stop this problem from the source, stemming the flow of plastic and maybe even find a cure for this pervasive disease which is taking over our oceans.

By Neve McCracken-Heywood

Rory Sinclair