What is the Great Pacific Garbage Island?
There is a giant garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean and it’s over twice the size of Texas, here’s what you need to know about it.
What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
Well first, let’s discuss what the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not. It’s not a 100 percent visible floating island of trash, like a landfill. And it’s also not the only patch. These patches actually exist all throughout the ocean and are largely concentrated areas of debris that are formed by the rotating ocean currents.
Additionally, these debris patches are almost entirely made up of tiny bits of plastic worn down by waves and sun exposure, called microplastics. And microplastics can’t always be seen by the naked eye. The microplastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch simply make the water look like a cloudy soup. There are some larger items in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, like plastic bottles, shoes and nets, but it’s possible to travel through a garbage patch and see nothing.
How Big Is It?
According to the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, “the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers, an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France.” But it’s not done growing and is actually rapidly collecting more plastic. According to a study published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, “there may be more than 16 times as much plastic in the vortex than previous studies have estimated.” This is because more than 320 million metric tons of plastic are produced every year—and a disturbing amount ends up in the ocean.
Where Is It Located?
Due to the seasonal and year-to-year variabilities of winds and currents, the garbage patches location and shape are constantly changing. However, the patch spans in the waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan and is actually comprised of the Western Garbage Patch, located near Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch, located between Hawaii and California.
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How Did It Get There in the First Place?
According to the National Geographic, “It is estimated that 1.15 to 2.41 million tons of plastic are entering the ocean each year from rivers. And about 80 percent of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia. Trash from the coast of North America takes about six years to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, while trash from Japan and other Asian countries takes about a year. The remaining 20 percent of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from boaters, offshore oil rigs and large cargo ships that dump or lose debris directly into the water. The majority of this debris—about 79,000 tons—is fishing nets.”
How Is It Formed?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is formed by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. This is where the warm water from the South Pacific meets up with colder water from the Arctic and acts like a freeway for the traveling garbage. The patch is bonded together by an ocean gyre, which is a system of circular ocean currents formed by the Earth’s wind patterns and the forces created by the rotation of the planet. The circular motion of the gyre draws debris into its stable center where it eventually becomes trapped.
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While many different types of waste infiltrate the ocean, plastics make up the large majority of marine debris for two reasons. According to the National Geographic, “First, plastic’s durability, low cost, and malleability mean that it’s being used in more and more consumer and industrial products. Second, plastic goods do not biodegrade but instead, break down into smaller pieces.” The amount of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch accumulates because much of it is not biodegradable. Many plastics do not wear down, instead, they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces called microplastics.
What Are the Effects on Marine Life?
Plastic has become an increasingly pervasive substance in the ocean. Due to the size and color of plastic, marine animals confuse it for food, which in turn causes malnutrition. According to studies done by the Marine Pollution Bulletin, “about 700 species have encountered marine debris, and 92 percent of these interactions are with plastic.” Additionally, their research found that on the surface of the garbage patch, “there is 180x more plastic than marine life. And sea turtles caught in fisheries living within and around the patch can have up to 74 percent (by dry weight) of their diets composed of ocean plastics.”
Not to mention that fishing nets account for 46 percent of the mass in the garbage patch and are dangerous for animals who swim and cannot extract themselves from the nets. Interaction with these nets often results in the death of the marine life involved.
What Are the Effects on Humans?
When an animal feeds on plastic, the chemicals from the plastic will enter its body. And as the feeder becomes prey, the chemicals will pass on to the predator—making their way up the food chain that includes humans. These chemicals that affect the plastic feeders could then be present within the human as well. These dangers are compounded by the fact that plastics both drain out and absorb harmful pollutants.
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What Are the Effects on the Economy?
The United Nations reported that the “approximate environmental damage caused by plastic to marine ecosystems represents 13 billion USD. This figure included the cost of beach cleanups and the financial loss incurred by fisheries.”
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What Is Being Done About It?
The first challenge of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is that because it is so far from any country’s coastline, no nation will take responsibility or provide the funding to clean it up. However, many individuals and international organizations are dedicated to preventing the patch from growing. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that “it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.” The second challenge is the sheer size of these garbage patches. There’s debris from the ocean’s surface all the way down to the seafloor, making it incredibly difficult to figure out how to even begin cleaning up the garbage. Not to mention all the marine life that would be disrupted if clean-up efforts just tried to scoop up debris.
So what can be done? Well, the ultimate solution is prevention. Scientists and ocean experts agree that limiting or eliminating our use of disposable plastics and increasing our use of biodegradable resources will be the best way to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.