Plastic Terra-Agua: The Other Anthropogenic Biome

Plastic Terra-Agua is otherwise known as the Pacific garbage patch or the Pacific trash vortex, and consists of a floating mass of human generated debris estimated to be larger in total size than the state of Texas.  The majority of the trash consists of floatable plastics coming from the coasts of North America and Japan that are collected and impounded in the middle of the Pacific (and other places) by the patterns of ocean currents.

(Greenpeace animation viewable here)

One of the first hints of the existence of the trash vortex was the large amount of plastic appearing in the bodies of turtles and sea birds, which mistake the colored bits of floating material for food.   Photographer Chris Jordan recently completed a series documenting the environmental problem, that was recently featured at SeedMagazine:

Over the past couple of years considerable research has been devoted to studying the trash vortex, both to get a better idea of what exactly is out there and to test possible extraction methods to remove the debris from the ocean.

Oceanic debris recovered by the recent SEAPLEX expedition.

Out at sea, much of the plastic has turned out to be surprisingly ephemeral, photo-degrading into smaller and smaller microscopic pieces while simultaneously releasing toxins into the water.  The soupy conglomerate is in constant flux: disintegrating and aggregating  at the same time.  And as much as the trash is killing off some species, others are welcoming and colonizing the debris, forming a mutant marine ecology.

Neither land nor sea, plastic terra-agua is a waste ecology occupying a colloidal in-between; an unintended (and unlabeled) anthropogenic biome.

The trash vortex is a wicked problem in need of innovative design solutions, both to address the trash island itself as well as the sources that continuously contribute to its growth.  By and large, plastic terra-agua is a landscape related problem, as an estimated 80% of the garbage debris comes from land-based sources (the other 20% is believed to come from cruise ships).  The trash vortex is yet another example of how urban, or the effects of urban conditions are ubiquitous.  It’s also a reminder of the inherent dominance of vectoral forces over contrived, or willed boundaries.

As much as we have been able to reduce the detrimental effects of urban runoff through the implementation of dispersed, above ground bio-filtration cells (swales, planters, etc.), we haven’t figured out how to stem the profligate flow of trash, which is a cultural challenge as well as a product design and landscape problem.

Trash Interceptor on the Yarra River, downtown Melbourne, Australia

Image at top from here.  SEAPLEX Expedition photos courtesy of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

One comment

  1. michael · ·

    this is crazy. i’m doing a project for my class on this topic

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