mapping the plastic garbage patch

Sea Education Association theoretical map of plastic marine debris _

“A previously undefined expanse of the western North Atlantic has been found to contain high concentrations of plastic debris, comparable to those observed in the region of the Pacific commonly referred to as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”,” is posted on the homepage of the Sea Education Association [SEA] website [].  SEA has been studying plastic marine debris for over 20 years.  the above image is a theoretical estimate of the plastic debris that is floating in our oceans.  i came across it in a Wired magazine ad [] that describes some of SEA’s methods for studying this topic.  i found this to be the most striking passage from the article, “One surprising conclusion of the study found the concentration of plastic in the North Atlantic has remained fairly steady during the past 22 years despite a five-fold increase in global plastic production and a four-fold increase in the amount of plastic the United States discards.” one of the professors and oceanographers from SEA, Kara Lavender Law, explains some of the reasons why this may be happening in an NPR interview that can be heard on their website []  i’m not an oceanographer or a plastics expert but i’d like to pose some questions that came to me immediately after reading this.  do the plastics we produce today break down and erode faster than those that were produced 30 years ago?  how much plastic is at the bottom of the ocean?





plastic mapping

many maps are made of plastic or paper laminated with plastic.  i want to create a map, but not a traditional map.  here are a few maps that i found made out of different types of plastic but their topics are irrelevant to the fact that they’re made out of plastic.  i want to create a plastic map that will map plastic.

i thought i’d post something fun today because the date is 11.1.11.  11.11.11 is coming up in 10 days.

made in china _ Amy Orr _

Mary Hayslip _ Birds

Denitsa V Spasova _ “Map Your Life”, 2008, detail. Screen-printed plexiglass, plastic cord, apporox. 3 x 4 ft.

this one is a bit obscure.  it’s a photograph of the paths of several plastic roomba vacuums moving about a room.  there is an entire category on that is dedicated to ‘roomba art’.

this may or may not be considered a map by some but i think it is applicable.  it could be viewed as an abstract representation of a map of Occupy Wall Street.  they have a facebook page if you’re interested…


the last map in this post, a map of plastic on paper, is particularly intriguing.  it was originally published in Fortune magazine in 1940 when plastic production was very new.  part of the text on the right side reads, “On this broad but synthetic continent of plastics, the countries march right out of the natural world – that wild area of firs and rubber plantations, upper left – into the illimitable world of the molecule. It’s a world boxed only by the cardinal points of the chemical compass – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen.”

Synthetica _ originally published by Fortune magazine in 1940

albatrosses are eating your discarded plastic

Midway: Message from the Gyre _ Chris Jordan

“On Midway Atoll, a remote cluster of islands more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent, the detritus of our mass consumption surfaces in an astonishing place: inside the stomachs of thousands of dead baby albatrosses. The nesting chicks are fed lethal quantities of plastic by their parents, who mistake the floating trash for food as they forage over the vast polluted Pacific Ocean.

For me, kneeling over their carcasses is like looking into a macabre mirror. These birds reflect back an appallingly emblematic result of the collective trance of our consumerism and runaway industrial growth. Like the albatross, we first-world humans find ourselves lacking the ability to discern anymore what is nourishing from what is toxic to our lives and our spirits. Choked to death on our waste, the mythical albatross calls upon us to recognize that our greatest challenge lies not out there, but in here.”

~Chris Jordan
Seattle, February 2011

Chris Jordan is a photographer who has studied the effects of marine debris on birds and other animals in close proximity to the great pacific garbage patch.  Visit these two links to see some of his work:

want to see something scary?

Plastic Reef _ Maarten Vanden Eynde _

Maarten Vanden Eynde has been collecting plastics and other marine debris from various expeditions over time.  the above image is 876 pounds of plastic from one expedition that was collected by the 5 Gyres project [] in the North Atlantic over a period of 2 months.

it wasn’t until around April 2010 that it was widely recognized that there also is a massive garbage patch in the Atlantic Ocean. even though it had previously been hypothesized, during April of last year there was a slew of articles that reported its existence. here is one from the Huffington Post:

happy halloween!

captain Charles Moore

captain Charles Moore is largely credited with the discovery of the plastic island in the Pacific. he founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in 1994. Algalita has a brief biography posted about Charles:

captain Moore gave a very good TED talk that is worth watching:

Charles Moore periodically travels to the North Pacific gyre to study this plastic phenomenon. one such voyage was documented by the Brooklyn based newsgroup Vice. there are 3 different video segments. all three are worth watching, but part 3 has the most information about the specifics of the garbage patch.

he tries to spread his message to anyone and everyone.  he has even appeared on the Colbert Report:

plastic island of the Pacific

there is a thing out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that humans have created from our own waste.  nobody knows exactly how big it is, how long it has been there, precisely where it is, or what it will do to us.  aside from all of the questions and concerns that revolve around it, the one thing that we know for certain is that it does exist.

most people refer to it as the ‘great Pacific garbage patch’ but it isn’t exactly a patch.  i sometimes call it the ‘plastic island of the Pacific’, but it isn’t much of an island either.  it’s more of a slough of broken down plastics, other garbage, and chemicals that are floating and moving around in the North Pacific Ocean.  it has a measurable size, density, and location.  although these three properties might hypothetically be measurable, nobody has yet to determine what the exact numbers are.  there is a general consensus that the garbage patch is approximately the size of Texas in terms of area.

i started researching this topic with an intent to create a map of this island.  a map that would draw awareness to the problem and attempt to make the scale of the problem more tangible to everyone.  i want to create a cartographic study that will make people care more about their plastic waste.  if more people become aware of the scale of the problem and gain a better understanding of what is happening, there may be some more action in the future to take care of it.

there is a lot of inaccurate information floating around about the subject and very little specific data about the garbage patch exists.  a lot of factors contribute to this, but the most apparent reason is the remote location in the middle of the Pacific making it difficult to travel to and collect data.  fortunately there are people who have been studying the subject and are beginning to understand the garbage patch little by little.  most notably, captain Charles Moore has been at the forefront of these studies.  he is credited with discovering the Pacific garbage patch.

a lot of the plastic waste comes from obvious sources like human carelessness and neglect.  responsible people also don’t often realize where there trash ends up.  when we put recyclables in our curbside bins, are they always recycled?  according to a USA Today article, research done by an international team has found that one unapparent contributor to the plastic waste problem in our oceans are washing machines:

it is uncertain whether or not we will ever be able to clean up this mess or even reduce the size at all.  few people are doing anything about it.  Greenpeace and others occasionally skims the surface of the water in the Pacific to collect visible garbage, but the real problems lie within the dense chemical slurry that we can’t see.  in the meantime, we can at least make an effort not to let it grow bigger.  we can tackle to problem at its sources and attempt to prevent plastics and other waste from entering rivers, lakes, and ultimately oceans.  groups in California have formed a coalition named Plastic Debris: Rivers to Sea to attempt to tackle this problem. this is their website: