conservation consumerism environment waste

The landfill continent that dwarfs the United States

I’m saying landfill in the title for lack of another word. In actual fact, for the purposes of this topic we’re going to use the word “seafill”. Of course by that I am referring to the dumping of waste in the oceans, as opposed to giant holes in the ground.

It may surprise you to know that there is currently a ‘seafill’ site twice the size of the continental United States stretching from  the coast of Hawaii to Japan. As I write, approximately 100 million tonnes of the world’s waste drifts around 500 nautical miles of the Pacific Ocean like a giant soup.

This “flotsam” as scientists call it, circulates the oceans for hundreds of miles occasionally passing the Hawiian achipelego, inundating the small islands with tonnes of rubbish from all around the globe.

About one-fifth of the junk – which includes everything from footballs and kayaks to Lego blocks and carrier bags – is thrown off ships or oil platforms. The rest comes from land.”

This soup of predominately plastic waste which has been monitored for the last 15 years is thought to contain rubbish over 50 years old. Because of circular sea currents, waste is slowly herded into this giant floating continent. No shipping routes pass through it, because they follow the currents around it, so year after year it quietly grows.

The sheer scale of this trash vortex (as greenpeace are calling it) is a disgrace. It is now larger than the whole of the United States, a continent-sized floater. The damage caused by this waste will have heavy repercussions on the planet. Currently millions of bird and marine creatures suffer at the expense of our carelessness. In the long run, so will humans. What enters the sea enters the wildlife, which in turn ends up on supermarket shelves encased in pointless and excessive packaging. Where does this packaging in turn go? That’s a question we all need to ask ourselves.

If ever there was an incentive to recycle more, it’s the thought of arriving at your exotic beach resort and finding trash as far as the eye can see, but that’s what we’re talking about. Much tighter rules are needed about waste disposal. More investment is required in recycling facilities. But most of all, we all need to cut back on the waste we all produce. This seafill could double in the next decade. Unless we learn to be more vigilant in what we buy and throw away, making sure we waste as little as possible, this irreversible soup of rubbish will become a consumer disaster – a toxic tide creeping up on the beaches we love to relax on and into the food we love to taste.

The prevention of this is simple, on paper at least. Its what we’ve been writing and what we still stand by: Use less, consume less and think more.


  1. Alarming though this is, you’ve got a couple of facts twisted. Twice the size of the continental United States is bigger than the US, but not twice the size: “continental United States” excludes Alaska, which is big in a way you probably can’t imagine.

    Also, 500 nautical miles is how wide it is. The area, according to The Independent, is about 5,911,034 square miles. The Seattle Times puts it at “at least” 523,594 square miles.

    The story in The Seattle Times emphasises another reason why this is a problem though: birds are are mistaking the bits of plastic for food, and it’s killing them.

  2. Indeed, Alaska is a monster and I’ve added the missing ‘continental’. Thanks for the corrections.

    Another interesting thing we left out about this floating waste is the risk of invasive species. Barnacles, molluscs and the like attach themselves to the underside and ride around the oceans, ending up in places they don’t belong and displacing the indigenous creatures.

    It’s an all round bad idea, in short.

  3. Yes I fear asking the stupidest question, but I have always wanted to know and you don’t scare me quite so much as my science professors… why can’t we launch trash toward the sun to be burned? Couldn’t we fashion bits of trash into a container and then launch it, preferably from the side of the sun that’s opposite of Earth. I mean… our tiny bits of plastic can’t HURT the sun can they? And it can’t be as costly as, say, killing the entire planet… right?

    *I admit to not having a good deal of knowledge in this subject. I just try to recycle and upcycle. =/

    1. (And yes I realize the Earth rotates. I mean “the side of the sun that’s opposite of Earth at any given time when launching.)

    2. A nice idea in theory, but there’s no way to do it that would be economical. You’d need some kind of propelled container/spaceship to put it in, since the sun is so far away. You wouldn’t get that back, so you’d be wasting a spaceship with every shipment. And since it cost $450 million every time they launched the space shuttle, so it’s an impossibly expensive way to deal with our trash.

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