We talk with photographer Chris Jordan, who recently traveled to a remote part of the Pacific Ocean to document effects of the world’s largest known mass of garbage.
What happened to that disposable Solo cup—the one you used once at a work party—after you tossed it into the garbage? For that matter, what happens to any of the countless plastic products (shopping bags, coffee stirrers, water bottles, etc.) we use and then discard on a daily basis? Of course, conventional plastic doesn’t readily biodegrade; so where is it now? If you live in North America or Asia, there’s a chance that cup is trapped in a broad ocean current, known as a gyre, in the middle of the northern Pacific Ocean along with an untold number of other pieces of litter in what has been named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The mostly plastic mass of marine pollution is giant—the gyre is actually made up of a pair of large vortices that stretches from Japan to about 1,000 kilometers off the western coast of North America—but it’s not a contiguous “garbage island” one could walk on or even see in satellite imagery.
Near the center of this giant swarm of pollution are the Midway Islands, a series of small atolls in a remote area of the Pacific, about a third of the way to Tokyo from the Hawaiian Islands. Here, some of the effects of the patch are just now becoming apparent. A full third of the resident Albatross chicks die due to feeding on the ubiquitous plastic, mistaking the ingestible bits as baitfish. The phenomenon threatens more than the biodiversity of marine wildlife at Midway. Many researchers view what’s happening at Midway as a bellwether for ecosystems across the globe, with the Albatross as proverbial canaries in the coal mine, alerting the world to an environmental toxicity that could ultimately impact us all in ways we’re just beginning to understand.
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