The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Plastics are amazing. Since the first man-made version was patented in 1856, plastics have brought forth countless benefits. But very few materials exist downside-free and plastics are no different. One of the main positives can also be a drawback. That tub you use as a storage bin will last forever, relatively. That’s fantastic for stowing in the attic, but terrible when it hits the ocean.

By the late 1980s, oceanographers had noticed something alarming in the Pacific Ocean. Ocean water is not static; currents abound. When the currents form a large system, we call it a gyre. Researchers began to discern high concentrations of debris within the North Pacific Gyre. The nature of the circular currents acts as a giant trash sucker. In 1997, during the Transpacific Yacht Race, a competitor sailed through an enormous patch of floating debris. This spot was dubbed the “Eastern Garbage Patch.”

A visualization of the North Pacific Gyre, which traps garbage - image by NOAA

As you might intuit, the existence of an eastern patch means there is also a “Western Garbage Patch.” The Great Pacific garbage patch or trash vortex is composed of two large masses of ever-increasing refuse. The size of the patch is not definite, but it is enormous. Estimates range from the size of Texas to the size of Russia, the largest country on the planet.

Why is the size of the patch not definite? Despite the mental imagery that might arise when thinking of a garbage patch, most of the problem is actually not composed of extremely large pieces of trash. While certain areas like the photo below exist, the bigger problem is, according to scientists,” actually caused by “suspended fingernail-sized or smaller bits of plastic.”

Sad, disgusting look at the ocean in some spots

An estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic comprise the patch, weighing over 87,000 metric tons. 94% of the mass comes from objects larger than 0.5 centimeters, but shockingly 94% of the total objects are microplastics, which are defined as having a length under five millimeters. The patch is a complex phenomenon, but its effect is shockingly simple and profound.

It doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine a behemoth zone of trash in the ocean as a hazard to the organisms living there, especially when so much of it is seemingly invisible. How does this issue affect humans? The food chain is a planet-wide system. When fish, birds, and other organisms ingest plastic, we ultimately ingest plastic. The preceding discussion, of course, has ignored other chemicals in the water from garbage that only exacerbate the predicament.

Approximate locations of the garbage islands

The United Nations Ocean Conference estimated by the year 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic than fish. Researchers believe the patch has increased in size by over 10 times in each decade since World War II ended. The vast majority of trash in the patch comes from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, but the issue is a worldwide dilemma. A 2017 study estimated that 9.1 billion tons of plastic have been produced since 1950 and that 7 billion tons of that total are no longer in use. The study concluded that only 9% of this figure was recycled. Subtracting the 12% that was incinerated, 5.5 billion tons remains in either the oceans or on land. We must do better.

And just in case you were wondering, the other oceans are not immune. We have also identified an Atlantic Garbage Patch.

Thankfully the story does not end here in doom and gloom. In 2012, a 17-year-old from the Netherlands proposed a concept for removing large amounts of trash from the patch. The project is called Ocean Cleanup. The idea is to use floating booms to catch debris. It is relatively inexpensive, avoids snaring fish, and is able to gather the smallest particles. The first prototype was launched from San Franciso in 2018.

Ocean Cleanup in action in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2018

On this World Ocean Day, perhaps consider donating to the Ocean Project. I’ve provided a link to their website below. Click on the “products” tab to donate and receive a special garbage patch item. 

Additionally, there is plenty we can do as individuals to ease the planet’s burden when it comes to plastic. Use fewer single-use plastics. Recycle! Spread the word about how important it is to be responsible for the plastics we use. Plastic is important to our society, so we need to make sure we are sustaining our ability to deal with the negatives it brings! Do as much as you can to keep our discarded trash from ending up in our resplendent oceans.

Further Reading and Exploration

The Ocean Cleanup – “The Largest Cleanup in History”

Plastic Trash in the Oceans – Smithsonian article

Great Pacific Garbage Patch – National Geographic

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – National Ocean Service

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