An oceanic toilet bowl

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.

Aside from recycling, governments from Ireland to San Francisco have fought to reduce a major culprit — plastic shopping bags — through taxes or bans. Environmental groups have been less successful at reducing the use of plastic water bottles, another source of trash and user of fossil fuels. The National Resource Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, estimated that 2 million tons of plastic water bottles were discarded in 2005.

Even if everyone agrees that the tide of garbage entering the ocean needs to cease, the question remains of what to do with the more than 6 million tons of plastic that have congregated in this shallow vortex 800 miles north of Hawaii’s coastline.

One proposal suggests building a raft of boats to begin cleanup. Another calls for exploring new technologies with trawling nets. Others believe it’s a lost cause.

“Trying to clean up the gyre with fishing trawlers would be like trying to mow a lawn the size of the United States with push lawn mowers,” said Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer and the leading expert on junk traveling along the ocean’s currents. “It’s like trying to put smoke back into a bottle.”

Captain Moore agrees, calling a cleanup effort “a fool’s errand." Even if all the trash swirling in the gyre could be extracted tomorrow, it would not prevent an additional 8 million pieces of litter believed to become seaborne each day.

“It’s an end-of-the-pipe solution,” Moore said, suggesting efforts should be concentrated on reducing and recycling plastics.

But a group of researchers and environmentalists from a group called Project Kaisei are taking doubters like Ebbesmeyer and Moore to task. In July, Kaisei, along with the University of California Scripps Institution of Oceanography, sent two ships to the gyre for research and data. It’s the first trip launched specifically to find an effective cleanup method.

“Other trips to the gyre have done a good job of getting the word out there," said Doug Woodring, an environmental entrepreneur who started Project Kaisei. "We’re just trying to take it to another level.”

Kaisei is looking for ways to cleanup the gyre and recycle the plastic collected. Kaisei entrepreneurs are hoping to increase its value by recycling the seaborne plastic into fuel, Woodring said.

“As soon as [plastic from the cleanup] has a value, people will have a reason to collect it and clean it up.”

Among the project’s many partners is Exponent, a California-based engineering company that analyzes failure prevention and disaster investigation ranging from snowboarding safety to the Oklahoma City bombing and Hurricane Katrina.

“Because I am an engineer, I think it is only a matter of money and time,” said Piotr D. Moncarz, an engineer at Exponent working with Project Kaisei. “Anything is possible if we have the resources."

Learn more about the endangered oceans in an interactive graphic.

This report comes from a journalist in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents.