Garbage Patch and the Albatross

June 24, 2014

Excerpts from an article by Jack Eidt on Pacific Voyagers blog, re-posted from

The Midway Atoll is 1,200 miles away from civilization in the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between North America and Asia. Millions of albatross that live there have been unknowingly snacking on garbage from the nearby Great Pacific Garbage patch. Of course, their bodies cannot process the plastic, and they eventually die.

Midway Atoll, also known as Pihemanu, is part of the Hawaiian chain of volcanic islands, critical habitat in the Pacific Ocean. Three million seabirds have chosen this circular atoll with three coral islets as their somnolent rookery, and 250 different marine species populate the nearby reefs and lagoons.

Midway’s isolation makes it an ideal winter home for most of the world’s remaining populations of the Laysan, Black-footed, and Short-tailed albatrosses, as well as fourteen other species of seabirds. Critically-endangered Hawaiian monk seals raise their pups on the beach, as well as occasional nesting of green sea turtles. A resident pod of 300 spinner dolphins make the inlets and shore waters home.

Garbage Patch and the Albatross

Of the 500,000 albatross chicks born here each year, about 200,000 die, mostly from dehydration or starvation. A two-year study funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that chicks that died from those causes had twice as much plastic in their stomachs as those that died for other reasons. Albatross scour the ocean surface for sustenance, finding all manner of plastic debris, bottle caps, lighters, combs, and minuscule photodegradated (broken down by the sun) pieces of plastic that can be mistaken for food. Hence, the birds swallow the junk, that perforates their stomach or blocks their esophagus or gizzard, leading to inability to eat, often leading to death.

The pelagic (open ocean) albatross migrates thousands of miles across the North Pacific Ocean before it arrives to breed at Midway. Seabirds that scavenge and feed by dipping are valuable biological and ecological indicators in marine ecosystems, studies of which can illustrate threats to species across the board from climatic and human-related pollution.

The Albatross journey across the sea takes them over the world’s largest dump: slowly rotating masses of suspended particles in the upper water column. This is known as the Eastern Garbage Patch, part of a system of currents with light winds called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, between San Francisco and Hawai’i. Found in varying locations, scientists have documented these accumulations of submerged debris can outweigh plankton six to one in sampled seawater. In addition to plastic, large abandoned fishing (ghost) nets are also a problem, that beyond seabirds can injure coral reefs and bottom dwelling species and entangle or drown ocean wildlife.

The most numerous albatross species on Midway are the Laysans, who have a five foot wingspan and remain on the atoll for nine months out of the year. They can live up to 40 years. John Klavitter, a wildlife biologist, estimates that albatross feed through regurgitation to their chicks about 5 tons of plastic a year at Midway.

Beyond the albatross, studies have shown up to 1 million seabirds choke or get tangled in plastic nets or debris every year. About 100,000 seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, other marine mammals and sea turtles suffer the same fate. And what about the humans ingesting seafood nourished by the plastisphere?

Hence, the impact of plastic on the albatross has a distinct message to us consumers: our penchant for plastic bottles, wrappers, containers, toys, fishing floats, do not magically disappear when discarded. They become deadly.

No one solution will be the answer, but a mix between product stewardship, plastic reduction legislation, and personal responsibility will make significant difference.

Consider the following as potential solutions to the problem:

Waste Reduction (or prevention) is preferred because that which never gets created doesn’t have waste management costs. Zero Waste is an ethical, efficient, economical, and visionary goal guiding lifestyle changes and practices emulating sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate the majority of discharges (90% reuse-recycle-diversion without incineration) to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) could make a difference on the production end, placing the legal, financial, and environmental responsibility for materials entering the waste stream with the manufacturer, not on the consumer or the local government at the end of the product’s or packaging’s life cycle. The end result is a fundamental shift in responsibility and financing so that manufacturers redesign products to reduce material consumption and facilitate reuse, recycling and recovery. For more information on Cradle to Cradle Producer Responsibility, see California Product Stewardship Council.

Avoid single-use products such as water bottles, utensils, and plastic bags. Reconsider the use of plastic products. Reusable alternatives could serve the same purpose, designed for durability. Recycle all materials properly. According to the US EPA, 31 million tons of plastic waste were generated in 2010, and only 8 percent of that were recycled. Remember one must also purchase recycled content products to complete the cycle.

Legislation: (Plastic) Bottle Bill to Reduce Throw-Aways: As an example, California’s Bottle Bill has increased recycling rates, yet some argue “loopholes” in the beverage container recycling law exempt more than 250 million recyclable plastic bottles from the program. Benefits and costs to this approach are debatable, but more than 350,000 tons of plastic containers continue to be littered and landfilled at the same time that plastic processors struggle to get a sufficient supply of recycled plastic to meet manufacturer demand. Increasing the use of recycled plastic in manufacturing means both jobs and reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

Legislation: Single-Use Plastic Bag and Polystyrene Ordinances: Plastic pollution like expanded polystyrene (eps) and single-use bags are among the most commonly found items during beach and coastal cleanups. These programs should be expanded worldwide.

Legislation: Safe Chemicals Act: The proposed Safe Chemicals Act, first introduced by Sen. Lautenberg in 2005, would replace the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 to essentially reverse the burden of proof on chemical safety, and remove endocrine disrupting chemicals from plastics.

The Rise Above Plastics campaign by Surfrider lists ten easy things you can do to reduce your “plastic footprint” and help keep plastics out of the marine environment. While all of these can help reduce plastic pollution, there are many more solutions out there.

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Last revised 20-Aug-14