03/26/2009 04:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Giant trash dump in Pacific is bad for sea life - but you can make it better

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At first, I was glad to see the Wall Street Journal headline "How Big Is That Widening Gyre of Floating Plastic?" yesterday.

But after reading on, I found the piece really misses the point when it came to the giant, floating plastic trash dump in our ocean dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The author spent much of the article debating whether environmentalists were inflating the size of the plastic gyre (is it twice the size of the U.S. or just twice the size of Texas?).

I'm not a scientist and I don't know the answer - but I think it's pretty obvious that even the smallest estimate is not good, and we know why. And with so many really simple things we can do every day (scroll down for tips) that help keep it from growing, you'd think the 1,290 words the Journal devoted to this article could have been used more productively.

To give you a little background: Years of bottles, bags, toys, packaging and plastic trash from all corners of the Earth are swirling in a plastic whirlpool in the North Pacific. Discarded water bottles from Iowa, takeout containers from New York City, flip-flops from California and plastic debris from the world over make their way from land into storm drains, streams, rivers and other waterways. They are carried out sea, where they get trapped in swirling ocean currents - forming a giant, floating trash dump of an enormous proportion - no matter how you quantify it.

In December one of our experts (who is a scientist) on NRDC's oceans team, Dr. Lisa Suatoni, went on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to talk about plastic pollution with a bunch of ocean critters borrowed from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

The most charismatic of those critters was Makana, a sea bird called a Laysan albatross from Hawaii. Albatrosses are a good poster child for this issue because plastic pollution is killing them en masse. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, on an island in the middle of the Pacific (1,000 miles from the nearest big city), 40 percent of Laysan albatross chicks die from eating plastic pollution. This is because plastic never dissolves, but just degrades into tiny particulars.

It bobs on the water's surface, and the chicks' parents (like other birds, turtles & marine line) mistake it for food. The parents then accidentally feed their babies bottle caps and lighters, mistaking them for their natural diet of squid and other fish eggs, which float just like plastic. The chicks' bellies fill up with the plastic trash, leaving no room for food - and they starve to death. (You can watch a short video of Makana, and see a tube full of the plastic trash that was pulled from one chick's stomach at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's site here.)

"Scientists estimate that around the world, up to one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year from eating plastic," according to Monterey Bay Aquarium's site.

So - a giant, floating trash dump in the ocean is bad for the animals that live there (including endangered ones) no matter how you size it. It's huge and it's causing problems. If you want to help, the best thing you can do is reduce the amount of plastic trash you create.

Here are some simple steps you can take to help do this:

  • 1) Recycle your plastic whenever possible.
  • 2) Carry a reusable canvas tote to the store instead of getting more plastic bags.
  • 3) At the grocery store, select items packaged in glass over plastic.
  • 4) Use reusable plastic containers. Carry your own mug for your morning coffee, or even bring your own containers from home to a restaurant if you anticipate leftovers.
  • 5) Make sure unrecyclable trash ends up in a trash can, not on the street.

This post originally appeared on NRDC"s Switchboard blog.