The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: What You Need to Know

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Lifestyle & Culture Staff Writer | Emma McCallister | em542612@ohio.edu

A bird’s eye view of a section of the Trash Island. Image via ClimateActionProgram
A bird’s eye view of a section of the Trash Island.
Image via ClimateActionProgram

It’s funny the things you remember from childhood. For example, watching your grandmother so diligently cut up one of those beverage carriers; the plastic six-pack rings. Years later, I too feel the urge to carve up the piece of plastic the moment I lay eyes on it. “SAVE THE DOLPHINS!” my inner activist screams.

Although the dolphins now have many crusaders on their side and most plastic six-pack rings are biodegradable, still not all interaction between society and marine life has had a positive impact. The trash we continue to throw away actually has a serious impact on marine ecosystems and the life that inhabits them. In case nothing majorly detrimental is popping into your head, look no further: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex.

According to National Geographic, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not one garbage patch but is actually two distinct patches. One is the Western Garbage patch, near Japan, and the other is the Eastern Garbage Patch, between Hawaii and California. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is what brings this area of marine debris together. A gyre is a system of circular ocean currents caused by Earth’s wind patterns and rotation. The area at the center of the gyre is very stable, hence the collection and build up of marine debris.

The names “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and “Pacific Trash Vortex” typically conjure up the idea of a giant floating dump in the middle of the ocean. Although you may be picturing actual garbage, the real issue is plastic and the breakdown of it that follows after its entrance into the ocean.

A dead sea bird skeleton shows the bird probably died from ingesting the plastic trash show in its decomposing skeleton. Image via ENN news
A dead sea bird skeleton shows the bird probably died from ingesting the plastic trash show in its decomposing skeleton.
Image via ENN news

According to National Geographic, “In the ocean, the sun breaks down these plastics into tinier and tinier pieces, a process known as photodegradation. Scientists have collected up to 750,000 bits of microplastic in a single square kilometer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—that’s about 1.9 million bits per square mile.”

Most of these bits of plastic come from plastic bags, bottles, bottle caps and Styrofoam cups. Another contributor of plastic, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Response and Restoration, are the tiny pieces of plastic that now can be found in things like face scrubs or fleece jackets. Plastic continues to enter the ocean at an alarming rate because of its affordability and the diverse ways it can be used.

Greenpeace International states that the garbage patch “is an area equivalent in size to Texas, or Turkey or Afghanistan, that slowly rotates our rubbish in a never-ending rotation.” While an area filled with debris and plastics estimated to be the size of one of the United States’ largest states, or a small country is rather disconcerting, the truth is no one actually knows how large the patch is. According to Nat Geo this is because the area is simply too large for scientists to trawl (fish with large nets that reach the bottom). Additionally, trash and plastic does not just sit on the surface. Heavier materials can sink inches and feet into the water.

Also concerning is the fact that the garbage patch has only three main contributors. Land activities in North America and Asia are responsible for about 80 percent of the garbage found there. The other 20 percent comes from boaters, oil rigs and cargo ships, Nat Geo states.

The NOAA Office of Response and Restoration states that the impacts these microplastics have on marine life mostly remain a big unknown. However there is much evidence to support the idea that the impact is detrimental, which isn’t surprising.

A few examples are Loggerhead sea turtles that mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, or albatrosses that feed small pieces of plastic they think are fish eggs to their chicks that then die of starvation and ruptured organs. Additionally, sea mammals like seals and other larger marine life become entangled in lost or thrown out fishing nets, which leads to their death. The microplastics can even throw off the entire food web of an environment, beginning with algae and phytoplankton. Needless to say, the effects of this mass of marine debris and plastics are not pretty when it comes its impact on marine life and, by proxy, us.

Plastic pieces floating above and below the surface of the ocean disrupt multiple levels of ocean life. Image via Oceanbites
Plastic pieces floating above and below the surface of the ocean disrupt multiple levels of ocean life.
Image via Oceanbites

Although it seems like it would be easy enough to go to the Pacific Trash Vortex and use giant nets to scoop up the harmful substances, it isn’t. One issue is how small the plastic is. Even if nets were employed, they would never be able to clean up the microplastics. As mentioned before, the area is also just too large to make a cleanup possible.

Many organizations are now contributing to stop the growth of the patch, which is also what scientists say is probably the best and only thing to do at this point. The best way to maintain and reduce the size is to invest in reusable and biodegradable products.

Sarah Byrd, a sophomore studying conservation and wildlife biology stated, “The problem is that we use materials that will last forever and will only use them for a day or even shorter … If convenience and money weren’t our main priorities, then maybe we wouldn’t have islands of trash accumulating in our oceans.”

While cutting up six-pack plastic rings might not be a necessity anymore when it comes to saving marine life, using biodegradable, reusable, non-toxic products is. The only guarantee for stopping the growth of the Pacific Garbage Patch is by limiting and eliminating the use of harmful materials (like plastic) that can wreak havoc on marine ecosystems.

 

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