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Published: Monday, 11/23/2009

Earth's garbage patch

THE old saying that "one man's trash is another man's treasure" is the engine that drives everything from junk shops to flea markets, garage sales, and eBay. But more often than not, trash is just trash, and when millions of tons of it accumulate across thousands of square miles of ocean, choking the life out of both the water and marine life, it becomes a problem the international community will eventually have to address.

Percolating in the Pacific Ocean, abut half way between California and Hawaii, is an aquatic landfill commonly called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Patch, however, is far too mild a term for an accumulation of debris that is estimated to be as large as twice the size of Texas.

The trash comes from ocean-going vessels as well as nations bordering the Pacific Basin and is brought to this one location by converging ocean currents that then hold it captive. The plastic that makes up some 90 percent of the debris breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that float below the ocean's surface but do not biodegrade.

These tiny bits of plastic, which can absorb any number of toxic chemicals from ocean water, often are ingested by marine organisms that are themselves eaten by bigger fish that may be caught by commercial fishermen and eaten by American consumers as well as people from other countries.

For centuries, people treated the seemingly infinite oceans as if they could absorb all the effluent of human civilization. We know now that is not true, and the existence of swirling masses of human debris only confirms that knowledge.

Efforts are just beginning to figure out how to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as well as other, smaller patches elsewhere in the world's oceans, but getting nations to accept responsibility and pay to clean up trash that's far away and out of sight in international waters will be difficult, especially now, with economies everywhere struggling, world attention focused on global warming, and the United States diverted by the health-care debate.

But pay they - and we - eventually must.

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