Great Pacific garbage patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a large body of trapped marine debris that resides in the Pacific Ocean. Marine debris consists of a variety of litter, mostly plastics, which ends up in our oceans, and massive rotating currents called gyres trap and collect the debris together to form these garbage patches.
What it is
Discovery and size
Discovered by Charles Moore in 1997, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch endlessly churns an inestimable amount plastic, fishing nets, and other marine debris off the coast of California. Unlike the name may suggest, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not an island of large trash floating in the ocean; it is mostly tiny pieces of plastic that are so prevalent in the Pacific that an area twice the size of Texas has become like one big bowl of plastic soup.
North Pacific Gyre
The North Pacific Gyre forms and contains the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Gyres are massive rotating ocean currents created by global wind patterns. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is divided into two main sections. The main and larger section lies between California and Hawaii, while the smaller section presides in between Japan and Hawaii. The two sections connect to form the Great Pacific Garbage Patch through a large ocean highway of trash. Hawaii has been caught in the crossfire; some beaches in Hawaii have up to ten feet of trash layering their shores.
The marine debris found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is mostly made of plastic. Abandoned fishing gear, lost shipping cargo, and other random trash items can also be found among the plastic soupy water. Plastic represents such a large portion of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch because it takes incredibly long to degrade. Plastic’s durability is one of the aspects of the material that makes it so popular in our society, but it is also what makes it so dangerous to the environment. Plastic does not biodegrade, meaning it does not break back down into its constituent parts over time. It instead photodegrades, which means it simply breaks down into smaller parts of itself; for example, a plastic water bottle will over the course of multiple decades simply turn into many small pieces of plastic called nurdles. Nurdles are actually more harmful to the environment and those living within it, because animals will accidentally ingest these tiny plastic pellets, which is detrimental to their health.
What it affects
Marine animals and birds are incredibly harmed by the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In fact, 90% of seabirds have some form of plastic inside of them, due to accidental ingestion. This number has steadily increased as our production of plastic has increased, and our plastic production doubles every 11 years according to Chris Wilcox, Senior Research Scientist at CSIRO. It is not hard to see why the population of seabirds continues to decline when birds like the Albatross fly hundreds of miles to feed their babies plastic pellets, mistaking them for fish eggs. Mistaken activity like this has led to a 60% decline in the monitored population.
Little pieces of plastic can slowly add up and partially or completely fill an animal’s stomach and cause them to starve, while sharp pieces of plastic can also puncture organs and kill the animal who ingested them. Unfortunately the albatross are not alone in their plight; Loggerhead sea turtles understandably mistake plastic bags floating in the water for one of their favorite treats, jellyfish. The problem is, plastic grocery bags are not a part of their recommended diet. Sea mammals such as seals can get caught in abandoned fishing nets and drown. So while birds are the easiest to study because they can be found on land, dolphins, whales, turtles, and etc. are all also negatively affected by ocean garbage.
How it formed
Until recently it was widely agreed upon that the ocean was so big that no matter how much trash or chemical waste we discarded into it, it wouldn’t make any noticeable difference. This theory even had its own ill-advised catchphrase, “the solution to pollution is dilution.” Edward Humes said that, “landfills are usually thought of, when they are thought of at all, as out-of-the-way things. Nobody really wants to think about what they contain.” He was referring to in-ground landfills, but this same logic sadly applies to what is going on in our oceans. These kind of ideologies have led to many healthy and thriving ecosystems being pushed to the brink of collapse. Not all trash and pollutants have to be directly discarded into the ocean to end up there and disturb its various ecosystems. Some pollutants can spawn large blooms of algae that rob other living organisms of the precious oxygen in the water; scientists have determined there are over 400 of these dead zones.
By releasing scientific buoys over the course of the last 30 years, NASA has been able to get an idea for how exactly these large garbage patches are forming. 80% of the debris found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch come from land activity in North America and Asia. The other 20% of the trash is provided by offshore oil rigs, boaters, and large cargo vessels that purposely or accidentally lose debris to the water. Fishing nets themselves make up about 705 thousand tons of marine debris found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Trash entering the water from the United States coast takes 6 years to make its way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There is plenty of trash and other marine debris in the ocean outside of the patches themselves, and the patches will continue to be fed and grow. Fortunately, awareness of the issue is continuing to grow to the point where this behavior is no longer tolerable, and international policies and laws reflect this.
What we can do
Preventing the growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the creation of more environmental issues similar to it seems to be priority number one for organizations such as NASA, NOAA, and National Geographic. By taking steps to protect currently thriving ecosystems from becoming harmed by marine debris, pollutions, and over-fishing, those at Pristine Seas are proving why there is room for optimism among a lot of doom and gloom surrounding climate and environment research. Pristine Seas and their partners create marine reserves in which a no-take approach is taken. Extractive activities such as fishing are prohibited in these areas to protect the animals within these ecosystems from being at risk. We need to treat the ocean and its resources in a more sustainable way. To have so many people constantly withdrawing from a bank account while no one deposits is unsustainable, yet this is how we have been treating the ocean. Animals living in these protected areas reproduce more quickly and develop to a larger size. In fact, the overall biomass of these protected regions has increased by 400 percent in ten years. Therefore, these efforts being taken are actually beneficial to fisheries and other businesses in the long run.
Protecting other marine ecosystems from developing issues like those we see in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a great and beneficial step to take to help the environment, but we also need to keep the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other patches like it from getting worse. The root of the problem must be addressed. The average American will produce approximately 102 tons of trash in his or her lifetime. A statistic like that makes it easier to see why we would have a situation like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch on our hands. The massive amounts of plastic we are producing and discarding needs to decline in order for us to solve the problem we have created. While reductions in plastic production can and should be made in favor of more biodegradable materials, the government and private waste companies need to figure out a better way to manage waste so that it does not end up in our oceans.
Many environmentalists argue that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can and should be cleaned, even if it is difficult and costly. One of the many challenges of cleaning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is that we don’t really know enough about it to begin tackling it. Torgeir Higraff and a group of Hawaiian YouTubers are attempting to change this by setting out on a voyage through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to collect data and broadcast its effects. In fact, the second Kon-Tiki voyage will send data directly to the conference in Paris so they can immediately see the data. Throughout the trip the crew will be collecting samples and measuring plastic concentrations in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch while broadcasting to YouTube to raise awareness. They will also use sonar technology to help them understand how the patch is fully affecting the Pacific.
Because the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so far from land, no country wants to take responsibility or provide funding for it. Charles Moore himself said it would “bankrupt any country” who attempted to clean it. Thankfully, a difference can possibly be made without the direct initiative from the government. An organization named Ocean Cleanup, founded by Boyan Slat, has designed what they believe is a possible fix to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The product they are creating is a floating barrier that will attach to the seabed and allow the plastic to concentrate itself for extraction. The best part—the ocean current will power this process. Antony Funnell put it well when he stated that, “plastic is one of the great wonder products of modern life . . . but it’s also now threatening to choke it.” Boyan Slat describes the problem we face as a ticking time bomb, because there are still many larger plastics in the patch that will turn into smaller fragments; these smaller fragments are even more harmful because they enter the food chain when animals mistakenly swallow them. Slat plans on not only extracting plastic currently in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but he also wants to trap plastic in rivers before it makes it to the ocean, becoming much harder to retrieve.
A feasibility study was conducted by 30+ industry experts along with the Ocean Cleanup team. The research produced a conservative estimate determining that one of these arrays can clean about 42% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 10 years time. One array will cost approximately $350,000,000. This is relatively cost-effective, and the organization plans to launch the project in 2020.
Other closely related articles in this wiki include:
- Turgeon, A. (n.d.). Great Pacific Garbage Patch - National Geographic Education. Accessed October 9, 2015.
- Silverman, J. (2015, February 10). Why is the world’s biggest landfill in the Pacific Ocean? Accessed October 24, 2015.
- Funnell, A. (2015, October 11). The world's oceans in the age of plastic Accessed 2015, October 11.
- Parker, L. (2015, September 2). Nearly Every Seabird on Earth is Eating Plastic Accessed September 10, 2015.
- Humes, E. (2013). Garbology Penguin Group.
- Pristine Seas. (n.d.). Marine Pollution Pristine Seas - National Geographic. Accessed September 10, 2015
- Office of Response and Restoration. 2015, October 22. Visualizing How Ocean Currents Help Create the Garbage Patches Accessed October 23, 2015.
- Sala, E. (n.d.). Creating Marine Reserves Pristine Seas - National Geographic. Accessed September 10, 2015.
- Suhay, L. (2015, October 13). Second Kon-Tiki voyage to map Great Pacific Garbage Patch CSMonitor. Accessed October 16, 2015.
- Boyan Slat et al. (2014, June 3). How the oceans can clean themselves: a feasibility study The Ocean Cleanup. Accessed October 20, 2015.
Relevant external links include:
- Marine Debris in the North Pacific FAQ - by EPA
- Scientists find worms can safely eat the plastic in our garbage - by Science Alert
- How Big Is the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch"? Science vs. Myth - by NOAA Office of Response and Restoration