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America's 10 worst man-made environmental disasters

By: Laura Moss on June 14, 2010, 12:50 p.m.
Plastic floats in the ocean.


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Pacific garbage patch

The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch is a swirling vortex of plastic bags, bottles and other trash that stretches hundreds of miles across the north Pacific Ocean. Some experts estimate it is as large as a continent, and in 2008 the Algalita Marine Research Foundation found that plastic outnumbers plankton in some areas of the patch by 48 to one.

The patch, which may contain more than 100 million tons of debris, formed gradually as pollution gathered in ocean currents and collected in the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. About 80 percent of the debris in the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch comes from land, and it may take several years for the trash to reach the area.

This churning sea of trash can entangle marine life, especially sea turtles, and end up in the digestive systems of fish, birds and other animals. Plus, sunlight can break down the plastic in the garbage patch, leaking toxins into the ocean and entering the food chain.