An enormous patch of waste plastic debris covering thousands of square miles has formed in the Atlantic, researchers said today.
The floating rubbish – spun together by a vortex of currents – was documented by two groups of scientists who trawled the sea between Bermuda and the Azores.
The studies describe a soup of micro-particles similar to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a phenomenon discovered a decade ago between Hawaii and California that researchers say is likely to exist in other places around the globe.
“We found the great Atlantic garbage patch,” said Anna Cummins, who collected plastic samples on a sailing voyage.
The debris is harmful for fish, sea mammals – and at the top of the food chain, potentially humans – even though much of the plastic has broken into such tiny pieces they are nearly invisible.
Since there is no realistic way of cleaning the oceans, advocates say the key is to keep more plastic out by raising awareness and, wherever possible, challenging a throwaway culture that uses non-biodegradable materials for disposable products.
“Our job now is to let people know that plastic ocean pollution is a global problem – it unfortunately is not confined to a single patch,” Ms Cummins said.
Ms Cummins and her husband, Marcus Eriksen, of Santa Monica, California, sailed across the Atlantic for their research project. They plan similar studies in the South Atlantic in November and the South Pacific next spring.
On the voyage from Bermuda to the Azores, they crossed the Sargasso Sea, an area bounded by ocean currents including the Gulf Stream. They took samples every 100 miles with one interruption caused by a major storm. Each time they pulled up the trawl, it was full of plastic.
A separate study by undergraduates with the Woods Hole, Massachusetts-based Sea Education Association collected more than 6,000 samples on trips between Canada and the Caribbean over two decades. The lead investigator, Kara Lavendar Law, said they found the highest concentrations of plastics between 22 and 38 degrees north latitude, an offshore patch equivalent to the area between roughly Cuba and Washington, D.C.
Long trails of seaweed, mixed with bottles, crates and other flotsam, drift in the still waters of the area, known as the North Atlantic Subtropical Convergence Zone. Ms Cummins’ team even netted a Trigger fish trapped alive inside a plastic bucket.
But the most nettlesome trash is nearly invisible: countless specks of plastic, often smaller than pencil erasers, suspended near the surface of the deep blue Atlantic.
“It’s shocking to see it first-hand,” Ms Cummins said. “Nothing compares to being out there. We’ve managed to leave our footprint really everywhere.”
Still more data are needed to assess the dimensions of the North Atlantic patch.
Charles Moore, an ocean researcher credited with discovering the Pacific garbage patch in 1997, said the Atlantic undoubtedly has comparable amounts of plastic. The east coast of the United States has more people and more rivers to funnel rubbish into the sea. But since the Atlantic is stormier, debris there likely is more diffuse, he said.
The plastic bits, which can be impossible for fish to distinguish from plankton, are dangerous in part because they sponge up potentially harmful chemicals that are also circulating in the ocean, said Jacqueline Savitz, a marine scientist at Oceana, an ocean conservation group based in Washington.