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Large Mass of Garbage Gathers in Ocean

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GLORIA PENNER (Host): Garbage it seems has no boundaries. Thats what a group of scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography observed during a recent expedition to the North Pacific gyre. It is a patch of ocean about one thousand miles off San Diego's coast littered with a pile of garbage the size of Texas. KPBS environment reporter Ed Joyce is here to tell us more about how the trash got there, and the impact its having on sea-life. Welcome, Ed. ED JOYCE (KPBS News): Thank you, Gloria. PENNER: How did all that garbage get into one location in the Pacific Ocean? JOYCE: Currents and wind. And most of it comes from the east coast of Asia and the west coast of North America. So it's all that stuff that you see on the beach, maybe today or this weekend, flying about in the air gets into the ocean; it's carried out and it kind of coagulates and is held, sort of in this large area a thousand miles west of California. PENNER: Do we know why that particular area? I mean, why west of California? JOYCE: There's a variety of currents that kind of swirl in different directions and kind of maintain the pads of garbage, all of that stuff, in this one area. Kind of like if something swirls in a bathtub, but it doesn't go down the drain. It just keeps swirling. PENNER: Sounds really disgusting. JOYCE: It is disgusting. I smelled some of the samples they brought back. Some of the collection of plastic bottles mixed with fish nets, and the scent is just something you wouldn't want to smell. Its a sort of a toxic, seawater scent. PENNER: So how are the fish and the other sea-life and birds reacting to all this? JOYCE: Well, they're going to analyze the information they've collected, the samples that they have, over the next six months to determine whether this material, possibly, is toxic to fish, marine-life, birds, and so on. There's also species living on some of this floating debris that are not part of the natural ocean ecosystem in this area. So now they're concerned that these invasive species may be harming life that exists naturally without the plastic and garbage thats floating around out there. PENNER: You know, scientists get into all sorts of strange and wonderful things. I'm wondering what they're going to do with all this research and with even the understanding of what's out there. JOYCE: Well, they're hoping to determine where it comes from, they have a general idea, and how its affecting marine-life. And then they're trying to look at ways to stop it from happening. Recycling is one way. There's possibilities of going out and collecting this and recycling and minding that a lot of thats plastic, because its valuable. There's a lot of petroleum and other things in that plastic. But they haven't come to a conclusion yet how they're going to do that and when that would happen. PENNER: What about people? I'm thinking about people, you know if, for example, we eat fish that came from that area will that affect us? Will we be poisoned? JOYCE: Potentially. Like other fish, you know, over the last several decades look at the amount of mercury that are in certain types of fish, embedded. And there's warnings about eating certain types of tuna and other fish based on whether you're young or you're pregnant for example. So, dow the road who knows? It just depends on what they find and what the analysis shows. PENNER: And the food chain itself? I mean, fish that eat fish that have been contaminated by the garbage? JOYCE: Potentially, as it has happened in other areas with other pollutants. PENNER: So what's being done? I mean, it's there obviously, what's being done to clean it up? JOYCE: Well, they haven't taken any steps yet to clean it up. It's a mass of garbage. It's not just one big island that you can see. One of the researchers mentioned when they got out to the general area, you see this cerulean blue sea - beautiful. But beneath beneath the surface and on the top there's little bits of plastic maybe the size of our fingernails. Then there's big collections of bottles, and tubs, and different types of plastic debris mixed and meshed in together. So it's an amazing amount of garbage that's out there. They've also said there's one in the South Pacific also that's about four times the size of France. So they hope to mount an expedition with money and other partners and a bigger boat, where they can do some of the research on the boat, and go there maybe in 2010 or 2011. PENNER: So we were talking about cleaning it up, but what about preventing it in the first place? You know more and more stuff is being disposed of by people. JOYCE: Well it's us. It's human scraps. It's the things that we produce, the things that we buy, the things and how they're packaged and how we dispose of them, or don't properly. They blow out of garbage receptacles in many areas, they're not intentionally littered. There's intentional litter. But there's so much of this stuff it gets out, it blows away, it collects in these areas in the sea. PENNER: Just very quickly, I'm just wondering if publicizing this kind of thing will help people think twice before they toss out that plastic bag. JOYCE: Well, that was part of the reason the Scripps Institution of Oceanography talked about this week, even though they normally say hey we've done some research, we've analyzed some samples, we've published a scientific paper, here's our results. But they wanted to highlight the awareness of what they've found now before the results are available to let people know, hey there are things you can do to stop this from happening. PENNER: Well thank you very much, Ed Joyce. JOYCE: Thank you, Gloria.