Unfortunately, not all trash ends up in a dump. If you’ve never heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, you’ll be very surprised by what you’re about to read. Spanning over an area of about 1.6 million square kilometers in the North Pacific Ocean, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of plastics and other human garbage that have accumulated over time in our oceans. That’s right, there’s a patch of garbage floating in the ocean that’s twice the size of Texas.
While the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a glaring result of overconsumption and failure to properly dispose of waste products, there are many commonly held misconceptions about what the Great Pacific Garbage Patch actually is. If there’s a massive floating island of trash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, why don’t we just go out there and scoop it all up? If only it were that easy.
Recent research into the actual size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch shows that it’s growing in size as more and more plastic is being deposited into the ocean every year. And while environmental researchers are constantly trying to figure out effective ways to clean this trash out of the ocean, the ever-changing nature of the patch presents serious problems to cleanup efforts.
The large quantities of plastics floating around in the Pacific can cause serious negative impacts to the marine environments in the area. Animals often ingest these plastics, mistaking them for food, or get tangled up in them and drown to death. To reduce these negative effects, scientists are looking into ways that this plastic can be cleaned out of the ocean; however, the real problem is quite simply the vast amount of plastic that is being dumped into the ocean every day. If the harmful effects of plastic waste on marine environments are ever to be effectively mitigated, it needs to start at the source. Plastic consumption, quite frankly, has gotten entirely out of hand, and needs to be heavily reduced if we are to save our marine environments.
What Is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
Many believe that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a literal island of trash that is very visible to the naked eye; however, this is not the case. Rather, the patch consists of an area where large quantities of microplastics and other types of trash are found, much of which is not visible. You could potentially sail right through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and not notice a single piece of trash floating around. Nonetheless, the trash is still very much present, and its negative impacts are still very real.
The marine debris that makes up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is continually mixed by wave and wind activity and is spread over a vast area. Pieces of debris that are heavier and more resistant to wind may collect into something like an island, but many of these islands are below the surface of the water and are constantly being moved around by the tides. The exact size and mass of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are constantly in flux, but experts say the general area of the patch is around 1.6 million square kilometers.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a result of human beings depositing waste into the ocean and that waste being picked up by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a vortex of four currents that all meet in the North Pacific. For instance, if you were to deposit a bottle into the ocean off the coast of California, it will initially be picked up by the California Current and travel south toward Mexico. Then it may be passed between other currents, making its way toward the coast of Japan, before reaching the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s estimated that around 80% of the trash in the patch comes from land, while the other 20% comes from marine ships.
Among all types of trash, plastic has proven to be the most detrimental to the environments around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Plastic is extremely persistent and does not biodegrade easily. Studies have shown that microplastic concentrations in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are increasing exponentially, which means that plastic is being deposited into the ocean at a far greater rate than it’s being removed. Recent surveys have estimated that there are around 79,000 tons of plastic floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Problems With Cleaning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not nearly as simple as just skimming trash off the surface of the water. Much of the debris in the patch are microplastics, which are nearly impossible to see with the naked eye, and are typically very difficult to skim. Additionally, studies using underwater drones have shown that the greatest concentrations of microplastics are found around 600 and 2,000 feet down, not on the surface at all.
The fact that these microplastics are so difficult to see, are concentrated in relatively inaccessible areas, and are constantly being moved around by wind and tides makes the Great Pacific Garbage Patch cleanup effort extremely complicated. And, while environmentalists are working day and night to try to remove as much of this plastic from the water as possible, there is more and more plastic being deposited into the ocean every day.
Plastic differs from other trash in that it never really biodegrades. The microbes that decompose other trash do not recognize plastic as food, and so it will float in the ocean forever. Plastic polymers are broken down by sunlight over longer periods of time; however, this process of photodegradation just breaks the plastic down into smaller and smaller pieces, which are even more dangerous to marine life, and are far more difficult to clean up.
Effects on Marine Environments
Larger debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can entangle marine animals, making it impossible for them to swim or find food. Things like plastic bags and six-pack rings can get caught around an animal’s body and can end up seriously injuring or killing them. Lost fishing nets are a particularly prevalent problem and are believed to make up 10% of all free-floating marine debris. These loose fishing nets can get caught around animals and kill them, a phenomenon known as “ghost fishing”.
Smaller debris can be ingested by marine animals and can lead to serious health effects. Many animals will ingest small plastics that make them feel full, and so they stop eating real food and starve to death. Loggerhead sea turtles, for instance, will mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them. Albatrosses will also mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to their young, causing the young to die of starvation.
Free-floating marine debris can also aid the spread of invasive species, as these invasive species can attach themselves to the debris and be carried into non-native areas. These invasive species will then outcompete or overcrowd native species, causing serious negative impacts to the ecosystem.
Debris floating on the surface of the water can also block sunlight from penetrating the water, reducing the supply of sunlight for autotrophs like algae and plankton. These autotrophs are extremely important to ecosystems, and if their populations are significantly reduced, it can have devastating impacts on the entire ecosystem.
Plastics under sunlight are also known to release harmful chemicals into the water. As the sunlight breaks down plastic polymers, certain types of plastics release chemicals like BPA, which has been linked to serious health problems.
What Can We Do?
It’s clear that the effort to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is going to take many years. Hopefully, cleanup methods will improve, and we’ll be able to more effectively remove marine debris from the ocean. However, as we continue to clean up our oceans, it’s important that we do what we can to keep it from getting dirtier in the meantime. Here are some ways that you can reduce the amount of plastic going into the ocean:
- Don’t buy products packaged in plastic. Drink from reusable water bottles whenever possible. Don’t use straws.
- Cut six-pack rings and the handles on plastic shopping bags before putting them into the trash.
- Bring reusable shopping bags to the grocery store instead of using plastic bags.
- Buy fresh food locally that hasn’t been packaged.
- Recycle your plastic waste whenever possible.
If you want to help in the effort to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, you can get involved with The Ocean Cleanup, or donate on their website.