The Pacific Garbage Patch: An Accumulation of Accidents

I found this paper I presented three years ago at Performance Studies International 15 on my hard drive about the nonhuman performance the Pacific Ocean has been conducting for decades we call the Pacific Garbage Patch. After reading again, I am looking to expand this paper into an article by elaborating more on Guattari’s notion of ecology and connecting that possibly to Whitehead’s concept of societies, while possibly toning down Virillio’s idea of the accident.

As always I would love to hear some feedback. Enjoy!

The Pacific Garbage Patch: An Accumulation of Accidents

Plastic Everywhere

In 1997, on his way home to California from a sailing race in Hawaii, Captain Charles Moore decided to take a shortcut through the eastern side of the North Pacific Gyre instead of following the prevailing ocean currents.  Fishermen and sailors usually shun this area of the ocean because, according to Moore, “its waters lack the nutrients to support an abundant catch” and “it lacks the wind to propel their sailboats” (2003, n.p.).  As soon as his boat entered the gyre he saw large quantities of plastic floating around his boat for miles in every direction.  At first, Moore thought that this sighting of such a large amount of plastic in the middle of the ocean was just a freak occurrence, but it continued for a full week of sailing.  Indeed, he reports that no matter what time of day he looked from his boat, he saw plastic debris floating everywhere around him (2003, n.p.).  Until Moore’s discovery, no one had ever come across this mass of plastic, which was at that time estimated to be some three million tons, swirling inside the North Pacific Gyre (Moore, 2003: n.p.).  This is because most boats don’t travel through the gyre but rather follow the clockwise movement of the prevailing ocean currents around it.  Moore’s finding is now known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”.

The Garbage Patch today is estimated to occupy a space twice the size of the continental United States spanning across the North Pacific Ocean some five hundred nautical miles from the California coast to the Japanese coast on the west (“Pacific Garbage Patch Still Growing”, 2008: 9).  It is composed of commonly found plastic items such as lighters, bottles, bags, and fishing nets.  As well, some of the more unique items that have been pulled from the water include a cathode ray tube for a television, an inflated volleyball half covered in barnacles, and a truck tire mounted on a steel rim (Moore, 2003: n.p.).  However, the majority of the debris found in the Garbage Patch is made up of microscopic plastic, which outnumbers zooplankton, the original microscopic inhabitants of the area, by a ratio of six to one (Moore et al., 2001: 1298).  In other words, the Pacific Garbage Patch is a continent-sized stew of salt water and floating debris, eighty percent of which is plastic (Berton, 2007: W-8.).  Although both the contents and the environmental impacts of the Garbage Patch are fascinating, and are worthy of considerable study and review, they will not be the subjects of this present paper.  Instead, in this paper I will focus on the movements and actions that have contributed to the emergence of the Pacific Garbage Patch, by investigating, first, the movements in the North Pacific Ocean, second, the daily activities we undertake with plastic, and third, how these two disparate events play a part in the Garbage Patch’s becoming.

Oceanic Movements

The North Pacific Gyre has emerged as a result of a two-fold process involving the movement of air and the circulation of water.  Moore states:

The air in the North Pacific subtropical gyre is heated at the equator and rises high into the atmosphere because of its buoyancy in cooler, surrounding air masses. The rotation of the Earth on its axis moves the heated air mass westward as it rises, then eastward once it cools and descends at around 30 degrees north latitude, creating a huge, clockwise-rotating mass of air […] The rotating air mass creates a high-pressure system throughout the region. Those high pressures depress the ocean surface, and the rotating air mass also drives a slow but oceanic-scale surface current that moves with the air in a clockwise spiral (2003: n.p.).

In other words, high air pressure pushes down on the surface of the ocean from above.  This downward force from this high air pressure increases the pressure in the water below.  Together the high air and water pressure form what could be described as a column of pressure.  The ocean currents below the surface of the water and the flowing winds above then move around this column.  Simultaneously, the circular movement of the air and water currents contains the air-water column, while the air-water column forces the currents to flow around it.  This process creates a dynamic equilibrium, or what Erin Manning calls metastability, between the pressurizing force of the air-water column and the circular motion of the air and water currents (2009: 11).  This metastable system between the currents and the pressure in the North Pacific Ocean are what enable the gyre to emerge.  Simply put, the North Pacific Gyre is a metastable system that is dynamically balanced between the currents of air and water and the high-pressure air-water column.

As well, the high air pressure within the gyre that presses down on the ocean surface creates a depression.  This means that the ocean’s surface is higher along the edges of the gyre than it is in the center, thus producing a subtle valley in the water.  Furthermore, as with valleys on land, anything unable to resist the force of gravity will eventually be moved towards the center of the depression. This slight dip in the water surface thus accentuates the force of gravity and, when combined with the clock-wise rotation of the air and water currents, forms what Moore calls a “gentle maelstrom” (2003: n.p.).  In other words, this dip in the ocean surface produces a spiraling effect that is similar to a flushing toilet bowl.

The forces of the currents and pressure that enable this metastable process of the gyre to also produce a second process of gathering. The clockwise rotation of the gyre in combination with gravity forms an acute attraction towards the centralizing high-pressure air-water column. It is only those entities that have the power to resist the pull of these forces that are able to withstand this gathering process of the spiraling gyre.  Due to their relative strength, most of the larger ocean creatures such as fish, sea mammals, birds, and seafaring humans are capable of resisting this gathering force and thus are not drawn into the gyre.  However, some ocean matter, such as marine plants, dead fish and sea mammals, and other microscopic particles and creatures, is unable to resist the gathering process of the gyre.

As this organic refuse swirls around in the gyre it undergoes a process of biodegradation that transforms it into minute particles.  These particles then provide the nutrition needed for the microscopic, zooplankton that live within the gyre (Moore, 2003: n.p.).  By feeding on these minute particles of organic matter, the zooplankton prevent the gyre from becoming overrun by the gathered debris, and thus help to perpetuate a series of processes involving the collecting, degradation, and removal of organic debris.

So what happens when a substance, such as plastic, which does not biodegrade and which cannot be fully digested by any creature on the planet, is introduced into the North Pacific Gyre?  As will be discussed below, the collection, degradation and removal processes in the gyre will alter to accommodate this new content.  But before exploring how plastic has dramatically affected the North Pacific Gyre and in doing so, has created the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a commentary on our relation with plastic is necessary.

Plastic Accidents

Every day millions of people engage in actions with plastic. These daily activities often appear inconsequential at the individual level. They seem so insignificant that when these actions are interrupted by an “accident” there seems to be no sense of urgency to remedy the situation. For example, think about when a plastic shopping bag is dropped and blows away in the wind, or when small pieces of plastic packaging are dropped into the sand at a beach.  Such situations occur daily, everywhere around the world, and are generally considered so ubiquitous and banal that no notice is made of them. Accidents just happen.

According to Paul Virilio, an accident eventually emerges in any technology (2009: 70).  When a technology is invented, so is its accident (Virilio 2007: 31). For example, the plastic bag was designed to be a light and durable carrying device, made for convenience and economy.  But that’s not all that it became: along with this intended use as a cheap and convenient way to carry things, the plastic bag also became an object that had the ability to fly in the air.  Thus, the flying ability is the “accident” of the plastic bag.  Thus, according to Virilio, an accident is “what remains unexpected [and] truly surprising” (2007: 47).  An accident abruptly demonstrates an unforeseen capability of a technology, exceeding the original intended use.

An accident also seems to be confined to particular incidents.  Every accident we have appears to be a discrete event.  From Virilio’s perspective these would be called “local accidents” because they are precisely situated (2007: 11, 33, 49).  Nevertheless, a problem with Virilio’s term is that he uses quite catastrophic examples to explain the local accident, such as the sinking of the Titanic (2007: 11).  Dropping a piece of plastic in the sand or having a plastic bag blow out of your hand does not appear to be as cataclysmic as an ocean liner disaster.  A better way to describe these incidents with plastic would be calling them minor accidents because the actions we take with plastic appear nearly invisible and upon first appearances seem to only affect the plastic and its user.  Although minor accidents, like local ones, are distinctly situated, they are not as spectacular.  These minor accidents with plastic are quite ordinary and banal.

This relationship we have with plastic has become so inconspicuously habitual that even these minor accidents have become so completely integrated into our surrounding environment as to go unnoticed.  We are as equally accustomed to the intended use of plastic within the environment as we are with its misuse.  We don’t think twice about either.  But when we consider that we perform these actions with plastic millions of times every day, it is clear that the resulting cumulative implications for both human and non-human entities through the intended and accidental uses are neither invisible nor inconsequential but rather remarkable and significant.

 Producing a Garbage Patch

After a minor accident involving plastic occurs,the results of the accident, such as the mess on the beach or the plastic bag flying in the air, end up being transplanted elsewhere as a result of the forces of nature.  One of the inevitable places this plastic goes to is the ocean.  According to Moore: “Since the ocean is downhill and downstream from virtually everywhere humans live, and about half of the world’s human population lives within 50 miles of the ocean, lightweight plastic trash, lacking significant recovery infrastructure, blows and runs off into the sea” (2008: 132).  The plastic enters the ocean and begins to travel following its currents.  Eventually, unable to resist the forces of the ocean, this plastic finds itself collected in the gyre.

Unlike the ocean’s naturally occurring refuse, plastic particles do not biodegrade.  Instead, according to Moore, “they ‘photodegrade,’ a process whereby sunlight breaks them into progressively smaller pieces, all of which are still plastic” (2003: n.p.).  This process of photodegradation eventually produces individual plastic molecules.  Unlike the ocean’s organic refuse, which is broken down and eaten by zooplankton, there are no known organisms capable of digesting plastic (Moore, 2003: n.p.).  Therefore, all of the plastic that enters the gyre is unable to be broken down molecularly and remains trapped there with no way of being removed.

Thus, the sequence of natural processes of collection, degradation and removal within the gyre is dramatically altered due to the fact that plastic is gathered and degraded but is not removed. The existence of plastic within the gyre thus necessitates a radical transformation in the naturally existing relationships found there. As plastic debris continues to be gathered by the gyre, it occupies more space than the creatures that originally living there, thus transforming what Moore has described as once one of the largest enduring habitats on the planet into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Moore 2003: n.p.).

The Integral Accident

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch began as a succession of minor accidents between plastic and ourselves.  The cumulative outcome of these minor accidents has resulted in producing the Garbage Patch, which continues to grow without any possibility of ever being curtailed by natural means.  The effects of the Garbage Patch are now producing another series of minor accidents.  Some of the better known minor accidents are sea animals being caught by lost plastic fishing nets or being entangled by plastic six-pack beverage holders.  Others are even more distressing.  For example, plastic in the Garbage Patch is often mistaken for food by sea turtles and albatrosses.  Because the plastic these creatures ingest is unable to break down, it accumulates inside them and eventually causes them to starve.  Even after these creatures have died, the plastic still outlasts them, as their bodies merely decompose around it.  As well, plastic can also act as sponges for toxic, cancer-causing substances such as DDT and PCBs (Moore: 2003, n.p., Moore et al., 2008: 134; Yamashita and Tanimura, 2007: 485-486).  The consequences of ingesting these poisoned plastics are currently unknown.

These minor accidents with plastic that emerge from the Garbage Patch, like the minor accidents that occur when we use plastic, continue to perpetuate more minor accidents with plastic.  In turn, this continued amalgamation of minor accidents leads to what Virilio calls the integral accident, which is an accident that “integrates us globally and sometimes disintegrates us physically” (2007: 47).  It is an accumulation of minor accidents that are incorporated into the process of daily living.  In other words, what began as a series of inconsequential action has been transformed into an extraordinary process in which accidents are now integrated with naturally occurring systems.

According to Felix Guattari, “when an important mutation appears within a domain, it can have ‘fallout,’ it can transversally contaminate many other domains” (1995: 101).  Those who invented the plastics that make up part of our daily lives  likely did not imagine that a half century later their innovations would unintentionally create the world’s largest disposal site, in the middle of the ocean! The “fallout” effects from the cumulative minor accidents produced with plastic are now being felt.  The folding and unfolding of these minor accidents enabling the emergence of the integral accident will continue to affect an unknown quantity of the planetary habitat (Virilio 2007: 47).

Nearly every piece of plastic that has been made still exists.  Current estimates state that plastic will continue to exist for centuries, but according to Moore, “they are all, at best educated guesses” (2008: 132).  This means our past and present actions with plastic will have continuing effects far into the future.  As the insurmountable number of minor accidents from human activity and non-human processes integrate with, as well as alter, all previous planetary processes, the long-term effects are uncertain.  Unlike the minor accidents that suddenly appear, the integral accident takes longer to emerge. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch took over fifty years to develop from the time the widespread use of plastic began and today, four more similar garbage patches are forming in other oceanic gyres. Because of plastic’s lasting durability and ubiquity around the earth, we will have a continual series of anticipated and accidental interactions with plastic for the coming centuries.  We invented plastic and now we have to live with it and all of its “accidents” for generations to come.

Works Cited

Berton, Justin. “Continent-size toxic stew of plastic trash fouling swath of Pacific Ocean.”  San Francisco Chronicle. (19 October 2007): W-8.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Trans. Tom Conley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Guattari, Felix. Chaosmosis: An Ethico-aesthetic Paradigm. Trans. Paul Bains and Julian Pefains. Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 1995.

Lotringer, Sylvère and Paul Virilio. The Accident of Art. Trans. Michael Taormina. New York: Semiotext(e), 2005.

Manning, Erin. Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

Moore, Charles. “Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing long-term threat.” Environmental Research. 108 (2008): 131-139.

Moore, Charles. “Trashed: Across the Pacific Ocean, plastics, plastics, everywhere.” Natural History Magazine. November 2003. <http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/master.html?http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/1103/1103_feature.html&gt; (Link offline).

Moore, C. J., S.L. Moore, M.K. Keecaster, and S.B. Weisberg. “A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre.” Marine Pollution Bulletin. 42:12 (2001): 1297-1300.

“Pacific Garbage Patch Still Growing.” Geographical. (June 2008): 9.

Virilio, Paul. The Original Accident. Trans. Julie Rose. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007.

Yanashita, Rei and Atsuni Tanimura. “Floating plastic in the Kurosho Current area, western North Pacific Ocean.” Marine Pollution Bulletin. 57 (2007): 485-488.

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One Response to The Pacific Garbage Patch: An Accumulation of Accidents

  1. Pingback: AcWriMo 2012 Update #1 | Drops of Experience

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