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article imageThe unsolved mystery of the Atlantic’s garbage patch

By Saikat Basu     Aug 21, 2010 in Environment
The Great Pacific garbage patch is well documented. The Atlantic garbage patch is relatively less known. Little is known of its origins.
The large swathe of garbage floating on the Atlantic has been a bewildering puzzle for researchers for long. The origin as well as its almost constant size has been questions that needed answers. Now, 64,000 bits of plastic collected from the Atlantic Ocean over two decades are providing some answers at least.
Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer with the Sea Education Association at Woods Hole, Massachusetts says,
"I think it's certain that the plastic is breaking down into pieces smaller than what we capture in the net.”
Also, the role of bacteria in adding to the weight and submerging some of the heap below the surface has been thought of.
The garbage patch covers an undefined region from the western North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Ocean stretching east to west between Cuba and Virginia. A combination of wind-forced ocean circulation and the so-called Coriolis Effect of the Earth's rotation keep the plastic circulating almost incessantly.
As Lavender Law explained about this undefined region,
"What we're collecting are really small fragments of plastic from larger consumer items. If you're on the deck of a ship, you normally can't even see the plastic pieces."
The origins of all the plastic remains untraced. It is impossible to identify the source of the plastic fragments. Satellite-tracked buoys have determined that floating plastic can travel from Washington, D.C., or Miami, to the Atlantic garbage patch within just 40 days.
But plastic should be piling up, looking at the increasing volumes we are trashing every day. According to data available, the amount of buoyant plastics in U.S. Municipal Solid Waste increased by 24 percent between 1993 and 2008, and totaled 14.5 million tons in 2008.
Even if some percentage of it reaches the oceans, it should end up in the Atlantic garbage patch. It could be that some of it is floating just below the ocean surface, invisible to the naked eye. The researchers feel that understanding the size spectrum and the fate of the plastic is a very important direction to go.
The answers could also tell us about how microbes break down plastics in a marine environment.
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