What exactly is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a huge pile of trash larger than the size of Texas that is floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, or if you want a more scientific sounding term – marine debris.
And there isn’t just one single patch.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most well known, and it is also referred to as the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch and the Pacific Trash Vortex. It lies in a high-pressure area between the U.S. states of Hawaii and California.
This area lies in the middle of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a slowly moving, clockwise spiral of currents created by a high-pressure system of air currents. A gyre tends to be very calm and stable, but the circular motion draws in debris which makes its way in to the center, effectively creating the largest landfill in the world. The area is filled with tiny phytoplankton but few big fish or mammals….and also trash.
Going past the obvious fact that this is detrimental to the environment, this garbage patch presents various serious consequences to the marine life as well as presents problems for the fishing and tourism industries.
Two ways in which this debris negatively affects marine life:
1. Animals mistake the debris for food and consume it.
2. Animals get strangled or caught by the debris.
Here is a breakdown of the items in this garbage patch:
So we can see that plastic constitutes 90% of all the trash floating in the world’s oceans.
The United Nations Environment Program estimated in 2006 that for every square mile of ocean, there are 46,000 pieces of floating plastic – that’s a lot. In some areas, the amount of plastic outweighs the amount of plankton by a ratio of six to one. That is also a lot.
Of the more than 200 billion pounds of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the ocean – also not a great margin.
Aside from the problems of consumption and entanglement, another major problem with plastic is that it’s doesn’t exactly biodegrade. That is, no natural process can break it down. Instead, it photodegrades – turns into smaller and smaller pieces without breaking into simpler compounds. The small bits of plastic produced by photodegradation are called mermaid tears, or nurdles. Funky word for something super deadly. Filter feeders easily consume these tiny plastic particles, leading to deadly blockages or death from being poisoned. Nurdles are toxic chemicals.
The motion of the gyre prevents garbage from escaping and so the amount of material in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch keeps piling up because as we covered – most of it is not biodegradable. To that end, no one knows exactly how much debris makes up the entire patch. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is about 19 million square kilometers (7 million square miles) but it is too large for scientists to get a really accurate grasp on the surface area. In addition, not all of the trash floats on the surface. Denser debris can sink to the middle or bottom of the water.
The other issue is that this giant gyre blocks sunlight.
Basically, it’s huge and is also a huge problem.
HOW DO WE FIX THE PROBLEM
The first issue that comes up in terms of solving the problem is that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so far from any country’s coastline that no nation will take responsibility or provide the funding to clean it up. However, there is talk among countries in international organizations to take steps towards cleaning it up.
But cleaning up all the marine debris is no easy task – many of the pieces are just as small as sea animals, making it difficult to simply scoop it up with nets since many small sea animals would be scooped up along with it.
Even if we could design nets that would just catch garbage, the size of the oceans makes this job too time-consuming to consider. And no one can reach trash that has sunk to the ocean floor.
Charles Moore, who discovered the patch in 1997, continues to raise awareness through his own environmental organization, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.
And we have people like this guy that are trying to find solutions to this problem:
And this boy is only 19 years old.
In a sense, this story gives hope for the future, but we (as in every country) must recognize this problem first and then work towards fixing it together. This is a vision that seems grounded in every cliche dream people have for the world, but there doesn’t seem to be an alternative. It’s too large of a problem to solve alone. But this boy and many others are trying.
The first step is really awareness. Share this will as many people as you can. Open their eyes to the problems that seem like they are a million miles away, because maybe they are, but make them realize how it can still affect them, right here, right now, and 10, 30, 50 years down the road.