The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

There aren’t many environmental disasters bigger than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As the name suggests, it’s an enormous amount of trash that pollutes the North Pacific Ocean. Commonly known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, the patch extends from the North American west coast, all the way to Japan.

The garbage patch consists of two collections of trash. They are bound together by the huge North Pacific Sub Tropical Gyre, a massive system of rotating ocean currents. It’s difficult to comprehend, or put into words just how vast this garbage patch is. And it moves and swirls, and more trash comes to join, similar to water circling the drain hole in a bath, only much slower.

Even scientists and ecologists aren’t able to really measure its enormity, but its size has been compared to roughly twice the size of the state of Texas. And the problem is not just with the marine debris you can see, but what you can’t see. The National Geographic reported that ecologists believe 70% of marine pollution has sunk to the seafloor.

In its entirety, this is a ridiculous amount of ocean pollution of all types, but the majority of the sea trash is plastic. Discarded plastic bottles, bottle caps, Styrofoam cups, and plastic bags make up the majority of the garbage patch.

Plastics are not biodegradable. In a process know as photodegradation, the sun’s rays can break the plastic down into smaller and thinner pieces, but it never completely breaks down. What’s left after the photodegradation process is known as microplastics. And after that?

Environmental Implications

The Pacific Garbage Patch acts as a blanket on the surface of the ocean. Organisms like algae and plankton rely on the sunlight filtering down into to sea for their survival. Despite the tiny size of plankton and algae organisms, that have a huge role to play in the underwater food chain. Fish, turtles, and whales feed on plankton. Without sufficient plankton supplies, these species will starve. Without turtles and fish, there will be nothing for the sharks, dolphins, and tuna to eat. See where this is headed? Yup, potential extinction for a multitude of sea-dwelling creatures.

It doesn’t take a marine biologist to understand that this garbage patch is a less than favourable playground for seas creatures. 1 million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are affected by marine pollution every year. In addition to all the plastics, it’s estimated that the garbage patch consists of no less than 79,000 tons of discarded fishing nets. Sea lions and other seas mammals get entangled in the nets and starve. You can imagine the Loggerhead turtles searching for their favourite jellyfish feast, only to munch down on a plastic bag, which can look surprisingly similar underwater.

Although the sea creatures are on the front lines when it comes to sea pollution, humans are at risk from the Pacific Garbage Patch too. The fact is that plastic can absorb and leak toxic pollutants. As the sun breaks down the plastic, chemicals such as BPA can seep out into the water, and become a part of the food chain once eaten by marine life. If you’re a fan of seafood, fish, or shellfish, that means those chemicals will eventually find their way to your plate. Dinner anyone?

How does Plastic Reach The Ocean?

More than 8 million tons of plastic finds its way to the ocean every year. Every YEAR. How does it get there?

Rivers: Take a look around on a windy day and it’s easy to see how plastic ends up in our rivers. The lightweight nature of plastic means it can be picked up by the slightest gust of wind or breeze. Plastic trash is blown from open garbage containers and even out of the landfill. If you add irresponsible boating enthusiasts and litterbug picnic goers, plastic has a one-way ticket to the ocean via our river systems.

Industry: Manufacturing plants and factories that produce and transport plastic can sometimes be careless. Loads may not be covered properly causing accidental littering, and some large businesses prefer dollars rather than doing the right thing. Illegal dumping, ineffective waste management and a relaxed attitude to recycling all contribute to the world’s ocean pollution problem.

Boats and Oil Rigs: The World Wildlife Fund reports that 20% of the garbage patch trash comes from large cargo ships and offshore oil rigs. Waste can be dumped illegally and fishermen can cut broken fishing nets loose; and in the big wide ocean, there is no one to police it.

Household Bathroom: Small bathroom items such as cotton tips, makeup applicators, and sanitary items that are flushed down the drain can make their way to our waterways and then to the ocean. Products containing ‘microbeads’ are a huge problem. Microbeads are made of plastic and commonly found in exfoliants, shower gels, and body scrubs.

What’s the Solution?

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is literally in the middle of the ocean; it isn’t close to the coastline of any one particular country or nation. Because of its location, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, no country or government will take responsibility for the cleanup; much less provide funding for the massive operation.

A Californian man named Charles Moore discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997. Moore is a sailor, surfer, and volunteer environmentalist. He was on his way home from a sailing race in Hawaii when he made the discovery, Moore said:

It took us a week to get across and there was always some plastic thing bobbing by. Bottle caps, toothbrushes, Styrofoam cups, detergent bottles, pieces of polystyrene packaging and plastic bags. Half of it was just little chips that we couldn’t identify. It wasn’t a revelation so much as a gradual sinking feeling that something was terribly wrong here. Two years later I went back with a fine-mesh net, and that was the real mind-boggling discovery.

There is no doubt that the cleanup effort will be a painstaking and expensive project, and Moore has even been quoted as saying that cleaning up the garbage patch would “bankrupt any country.”

Not deterred, entrepreneur Boylan Slat has come up with a concept that may be economically feasible and see the Great Pacific Garbage Patch sorted out within a decade. His system is nothing short of genius and I urge you to check out The Ocean Clean Up website to learn more and contribute if you can.

What You Can Do Now

Short of chartering a worthy sea vessel and heading out on the deep blue with a trash bin, what can you do right this minute to help the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? The short answer is to minimise your use of plastic and be responsible for the disposal of it. Here are some real ways you can prevent your plastic trash contributing to the ocean pollution epidemic.

  • Don’t buy water. Carry a stainless steel or glass drink bottle when you’re out and about.
  • Refuse to use single-use plastics.
  • Pick up after yourself. Take trash home with your from the beaches, riversides, and parks so that you can dispose of them thoughtfully.
  • Use reusable shopping bags and say no to plastic bags when offered.
  • Get involved in your local community clean-ups and environmental projects.
  • Recycle. Recycle. Recycle. Did you know that of the 3 million tons of plastic produced in Australia, only 12% is recycled?

Small steps made by environmentally conscious people have the potential to move mountains; and the ability to reduce the mountains of trash that we produce every year.