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An oceanic toilet bowl

Swirling currents net the world's trash far out to sea

Runoff from San Diego's Chollas Creek on its way to the North Pacific Ocean Gyre, where most waterborne debris is thought to collect. (Courtesy/Unified Port of San Diego)

Editor's note: This story is part of a project spearheaded by GlobalPost's Study Abroad team and summer interns. They spent the summer learning about the world's endangered oceans and their work is displayed in this interactive graphic.

BOSTON — It has been described as a “plastic soup” by those who have made the long, seasick trip there.

Lurking a few inches below the ocean’s surface and straddling an area the size of Texas, or maybe larger — no one knows for sure because satellites can’t measure just below the surface — is a giant swirl of plastic and trash, all emanating from someone’s backyard, village, boat or beach.

It’s your garbage, not quite buried at sea.

These are the gyres, where the ocean's currents collect floating garbage. There are five or six around the globe. The most prominent one — actually a patch of two interconnected gyres — floats in the doldrums of the north Pacific, halfway between the coasts of the United States and Asia. Ocean currents and sea winds swirl together to form a shallow helix of refuse. Tiny pieces of confetti-sized plastic mix with an occasional rubber ducky and those ubiquitous plastic water bottles you throw out every so often.

Albatrosses are most affected by the garbage patch, said Charles Moore, of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, who is credited with unwittingly discovering the biggest trash patch as he sailed through it on a yacht race 12 years ago. The birds, and many types of fish, mistake the plastic pieces for food.

Researchers can only estimate the number of animals killed by debris throughout vast swaths of ocean, but one 1997 study suggested more than 100,000 marine mammals die from entanglement or ingestion of trash and fishing gear each year.

If you don’t care about the albatross, says Moore, consider the effect on humans. Scientists fear pieces of plastic smaller than plankton are entering the food chain when ingested by fish, and later, by you and me.

“We are eating our own waste,” Moore said.

Governments and private enterprises around the world are trying to recover as much of this waste as possible before it ends up in landfills or floating in the seas. A Texas company called TieTek uses waste plastic to create railroad ties, which are impervious to termites and other wood-eating organisms. (For once, plastic's indigestibility becomes an asset.) In Kenya, where plastic bags are so ubiquitous that they are called the unofficial national flower, small collectives turn old bags, flip-flops and other items into art and jewelry.