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Some researchers believe that more than 5 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean has become a soup of plastic confetti. Now, scientists are trying to quantify the problem and are studying how plastic affects fish, marine mammals and birds.
And finally tonight, the problems created by trash floating in the Pacific Ocean. Spencer Michels has our Science Unit report.
SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour correspondent: Sixty-one-year-old Charles Moore, former owner of a furniture repair business in Long Beach, California, and an amateur scientist, surprised the scientific world with a discovery he made in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
While sailing his research vessel back from Hawaii in 1997, he ran into what he calls a vast "garbage patch" in a calm part of the sea.
CHARLES MOORE, Ocean Researcher:
Every single day for that week that we crossed these doldrums, we saw trash every time we came on deck. I think it's fair to say that the phenomena exists from just off the coast of China all the way to a few hundred miles from the coast of California. It's at least one-and-a-half times the size of the United States, approximately 5 million square miles.
Using what's called a manta trawl to skim the water, Moore and his crew found tons of trash in an area called the North Pacific Gyre, that is largely off the main shipping and sailing routes. Among the junk: umbrella handles, cigarette lighters, ropes, thousands of toothbrushes.
These are from Hawaii, huh?
Yes, they're from Asia, probably. Like here's a brand I don't recognize.
Most of the trash Moore found was plastic. He and others believe that plastic is washed down rivers into the Pacific, then carried by currents past Central America, by Guam and the Philippines, on towards Japan, picking up more debris all the time. It then flows east into the gyre, a garbage patch estimated by scientists to contain 3.5 million tons of junk.
It's a very circuitous route, maybe taking five years for a piece of our trash to get out to the gyre.
And once there, it gets stuck.
… so that you get kind of a toilet bowl effect of dragging the debris from the rim and bringing it into the center.
Moore isn't the only one finding plastic. Richard and Judith Selby Lang, both artists, have collected 7,000 pounds of trash that have washed up on one small beach north of San Francisco.
This day, they easily found several handfuls of plastic garbage, including round plastic pellets, or nurdles, used in fabrication of plastic objects. They use the plastic they find to create art and jewelry. And despite their free art supplies, they are disturbed by how much plastic comes from the sea.
JUDITH SELBY LANG, artist: We call things disposable, disposable lighters, disposable this, disposable that. But when we toss it away, it's not really gone, and it's not really gone for a long, long time. Everything ends up somewhere.
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