Modern Archaeology in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

In our historical archaeology course, we have talked a significant amount about waste, garbology, and the value of disposed material remains in assessing a culture. Can archaeology, though, have a role in reducing the impact of human populations on our Earth? Is preserving garbage necessary to the study of archaeology, and is preserving trash ethical?

Most of the garbology case studies we have looked at involve landfills, but one of the largest trash accumulation sites today actually is not terrestrial. This water-based garbage heap is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” located between the Western U.S. coast and Hawaii. The Great Pacific Garbage patch is a collection of debris (mostly non-degradable plastic) that has been pushed into a circulating mass by an ocean gyre, or rotating ocean currents. Trash enters this whirlpool of sorts, and, due to the gyre’s force, cannot leave.  Thus, a huge mass of trash coming from across the globe continually grows and grows in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Most of the trash is plastic, and does not degrade.

This “garbage patch” would be an amazing archaeological resource. Thousands of non-degradable items all in one site and reflecting global trends (such as the Japanese tsunami, which increased debris accumulation). It is also, however, a devastating disrupter to the ocean ecosystem. Plastic debris entangle macrofauna (such as turtles, dolphins, and sea lions). Plastic also never fully degrades, and ends up creating a toxic sludge that mixes with phytoplankton, the basis of the entire ocean food chain.  For ecological purposes, the garbage patch must go. But what about for archaeological purposes?

I would argue that there is no archaeological reason to preserve the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. First, the artifacts found the garbage patch are all indirect, transposed, and removed from their original context. Thus, removing them from the patch would not greatly impact our understanding of these items’ context. Second, though plastic does not fully degrade on a molecular level, it does break down, and as it breaks down, the objects it forms become more and more difficult to identify. Removing these items from the ocean would prevent their descent into being unrecognizable. Finally, it would be extremely impractical to try to study the Great Pacific Garbage patch in situ. Most of the garbage is at or just below the surface, meaning archaeologist would have to become certified in ocean diving.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is just one example of how two seemingly opposing goals can actually be in accordance. Archaeologists and ecologists can work together by removing the debris from the ocean, and then analyzing it. Preserving the Great Pacific Garbage Patch helps no one. However, there are still other unresolved issues for which I do not have answers: do archaeologists have an environmental responsibility to not preserve other garbology sites because of the detrimental effects of our waste? Should archaeologists, after studying a garbology site, incinerate the evidence? If we, as a society, succeed in reducing our waste outputs, will we be inhibiting the work of future archaeologists?

If you are interested in the life history of garbage and in ocean debris, I recommend the below “mockumentary” about the life of a plastic bag. It is very well done, informative, and humorous, yet sobering.


To find out more about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, visit:

This entry was posted in Archaeology in the News by Guasco. Bookmark the permalink.

About Guasco

Anna Guasco, '16, is an idealist from coastal Ventura, California. She is passionate about environmental conservation, equitable socioeconomic development, and global perspectives, and is interested in majoring in Environmental Science, Sociology and Anthropology, International Relations, and almost every other major Carleton College offers. While in high school in California, she loved getting involved with local restoration ecology efforts and working with kids. When she is not studying, she enjoys running, hiking, volunteering, playing with her dog, learning French, meeting new people, and exploring the world. She is so excited to be in beautiful Northfield, Minnesota, and to be a knight!

3 thoughts on “Modern Archaeology in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

  1. I’m glad to know someone else has heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or as it was called in my hometown, the Great Pacific Gyre. Clearly it presents a great environmental risk, with non-degradable plastics harming sealife and perhaps even the entire ecosystem.

    While I agree with you that it would be more archaeologically useful to attempt to recover the garbage from the ocean, I’m interested in the questions raised by the counter-argument that it would be more archaeologically useful to leave it as it is. What should we value more, reconstructing the history of our own species, or protecting this part of the environment? Can we realistically achieve a middle-ground where we are able to minimize waste and environmental damage while avoiding the sacrifice of precious archaeological evidence?

    Personally, I think that it’s imperative to value environmental protection over protection of archaeological evidence. While archaeological methods can adapt to changing times and lessening waste production, the environment can only handle so much waste without being significantly damaged. It doesn’t make sense to justify continued environmental destruction by saying it’s necessary for research. We must allow research methods to adapt and broaden, perhaps by relying more on documented evidence of reduced or recycled waste.

    I’m curious to know what others think about this. Which should come first, environmental protection or archaeological research? Can we find a middle-ground?

  2. I personally agree with your assertion that we cannot preserve the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and I agree with Jack on this issue as well. The environment should come first and preserving garbage purely for archaeological purposes is unethical. Archaeologists can adjust to reduced waste, but the environment is obviously having difficulty with adjusting to the amount of trash humans are generating at present.
    I found your mention of the artifacts in the garbage patch being transposed and removed from their original context very interesting. I agree that they would not be easy to fully understand because of this, and quite frankly, there is so much trash in the world that this one instance of transposed artifacts is unnecessary to preserve.
    Archaeological research does not solely rely on garbology; that is just one facet of a complex area of study. I feel that archaeologists would be interested to understand the changing patterns in waste management. By reducing waste and recycling more, one can see how culture is changing to reflect concern about the health of our planet. It is basically a win-win to take care of the environment first. Archaeologists can follow the changing culture and how it is reflected in the archaeological record by the presence of less trash. What I’m saying is that if we do reduce our waste output, we will not be negatively impacting the work of future archaeologists. They will come to conclusions simply based on the fact that there is a lot less waste. After all, that is an observation that will say a lot about the changes occurring in our culture.
    On a semi-unrelated note, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is truly a tragedy and its effect on the ocean ecosystem is rather depressing. It would be awful to preserve it simply to gratify humanity’s need to understand each other through material culture. I honestly don’t know if there should be a middle ground. I think that the environment is more important than trash. There are other avenues for archaeological inquiry, whereas we don’t have another planet to call home.

  3. This is very interesting, Anna! I am actually quite intrigued about this site and it seems to be unique it how it comprises of multiple issues and the size of the trash patch lends itself to the size of the problem.

    I think the studying of this site would lead to the uncovering of many global trends in consumption as well as trends in trash production. I think the study of this site the way it is would be valuable (there are many archaeologists specialized in ocean archaeology), but for environmental reasons it should also be removed from the area. The overall detriment this toxic trash heap has on ocean ecosystems, as you have shown, is too great to ignore. However, the only alternative, at least in my mind, is to transfer it to terrestrial storage sites. The incineration of this kind of trash would lead to the release of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere that would also be a greater detriment to the environment in its effects than having it sit in a landfill. The largest concern in my mind is how are we going to create a sustainable way of trash disposal?

    Now to answer Jack’s question. I personally think a middle ground can be achieved in most situations, but I wouldn’t be able to believe that anyone would put archaeological research before environmental protection in situations such as this. The overall detriment and benefit needs to be taken into account. In this instance however, both missions’ objectives can be achieved in sync. Though the archaeologists will have to forgo on site investigation, they will be able to research the materials as they are taken out of the water and brought to land-based storage facilities. In this way, both sides will be adequately satisfied.

    The thing I am most surprised about is that this garbage patch is allowed to exist without a significant push to clean it up. From the quick search I just did, all I could find were mentions of research of the site and push by international organizations to show that we first need to recycle the plastic we have before creating more of it. But as of yet, there has been no removal of large quantities of trash. In this instance, it seems that environmental protection is getting sidelined by environmental research, so it brings into question my previous assumption that environmental protection would trump research. To me this seems backwards…

    So my question to you guys is where do you guys stand on this? Is it OK to use it as an opportunity to expand our knowledge base on garbage patches and trash accumulation? Or should we be focusing on the clean-up of the problem before studying it?