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ONE OF MY FAVORITE airline “bad” habits is loading up on glossy magazines for the ride. I could easily spend $50 on my cache of reading, which spans subjects as varied as new high-tech toys, losing belly fat fast and the best deals on wheels. These days, I have a virtuous reason for my airline haul: I am in search of fabulously written magazine stories to share with journalism students. That’s how I happened on a whale of a tale that began mundanely enough with a guy sailing home from a race in Hawaii.

No, Capt. Charles Moore wasn’t shanghaied by pirates. And he wasn’t shipwrecked like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. But in 1997, he experienced something so disgusting in the Pacific Ocean that he abandoned his day job and embarked on a 13-year crusade. North of Hawaii, he detoured into a becalmed little stretch of the Pacific known as the gyre — 10 million square miles of water that rotates slowly clockwise. What he saw there stunned him. For a week, he sailed through an enormous amount of scattered garbage: soda bottles and bottle caps, plastic bags and toys. More recently, Marcus Eriksen of Moore’s Algalita Marine Research Foundation and a sailor on Junkraft, a 2008 plastic debris awareness trip to the Pacific, described the gyre in his blog as “the toilet bowl that never flushes”; the water just circles and circles.

We’re not talking a plastic jug here or there. We’re talking a stew of tiny plastic particles — the remains of plastic goodies that have washed to sea, some of it may be 50 years old. Once broken down, this stuff is invisible to the eye. Nobody knows how big the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is. It’s at least the size of Texas, my home state. It may be as vast as three times the size of the United States. The United Nations claims there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter for every square mile, a massive junk pile that affects our food chain. (Where did that tuna on my plate last eat?) Turns out, of the five main gyres in the world — two in the Pacific, two in the Atlantic and another in the Indian Ocean — there is confirmed trash in three of the gyres, and it is possible that all five may be polluted with plastic debris.

I’ve now seen this story in every form: magazine and newspaper articles, blog postings, YouTube videos and tweets on Twitter. The medium may change, but the tale remains — and it got me off my duff. I already recycle plastic, so I dug out my box of formerly insanely great products that I had been meaning to recycle for years: the Nikon Coolpix 4100 camera that captured my girls with Tina Turner and Fidel Castro at Madame Tussauds in Manhattan; an antique Canon Sure Shot held together with masking tape; a BlackBerry 628; and a Palm IIIxe, not to mention all the cords and chargers that have been growing, like an octopus, in a basket under the TV.

At first, to be honest, I was thinking profit motive: Let’s make some money for vacation shopping and put some money back into the economy — Cathy’s personal little stimulus package. I checked out www.cellforcash.com, where I discovered that they really only want 3G and 3GS iPhones, but if you have one, hey, we’re talking about $160 and up. Then I found www.thinkrecycle.com, which informed me that my BlackBerry was worth … 10 cents! (But it still works!) I tried www.gazelle.com and www.myboneyard.com, which pay for old electronics. No go. The Coolpix and the Palm IIIxe that are still in mint condition (OK, so they don’t work, but they’re not scratched!) weren’t worth even a few cents.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which is making a major push on cell phone recycling these days, says more than 200 million computer monitors and products are disposed of annually, as well as 130 million cell phones and 26 million TVs. Most end up in landfills, where their lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic leach into the soil for our kids to enjoy in later years. Fewer than 20 percent of these items are refurbished for resale or mined for their goods. For every 1 million cell phones recycled, 75 pounds of gold, 772 pounds of silver, 44 pounds of palladium and 35,000 pounds of copper are recovered. All the major cell phone companies will recycle your phone, as will Best Buy and Office Depot, so what’s your problem? Worried about your data? ReCellular.com has PDFs that tell you how to erase data for many phone models (including my aging BlackBerry).

In the end, I decided to donate the phone to www.cellphonesforsoldiers.com, a program started by two Massachusetts teenagers. If there is no drop-off site near you, check out the National Coalition against Domestic Violence (www.ncadv.org), which sells the phones to a recycling program, then uses the profits to help victims of domestic violence. The computer stuff went to a city recycling program, as did the cameras.

While I was doing the research, of course, I generated about 40 pages of research material (guilty as charged!), but I discovered that there is a place to recycle almost everything, including crayons (www.crazycrayons.com) and tennis balls (www.rebounces.com). Plus, I have a super example of why journalism may yet survive the age of the blogger: A great story, whether it’s printed in a magazine or relayed in a Tweet, will always find readers.

To read more about ocean trash, click here to read Jim Morrison’s June 1 story