The “Great Pacific Garbage Patches” are just what they sound like. Not one, but two immense clusters of man-made trash concentrated in the North Pacific Ocean. One is off the east coast of Japan, the other between Hawaii and California, often described as being as being ‘as large as Texas!’
The name may lead you to imagine floating islands of garbage, full of plastic bags visible from an airplane. But the reality is far more insidious. Most of the debris is made of much smaller pieces. They range in size, from large, discarded fishing nets to tiny micro-plastics, chunks smaller than 5 mm (0.2 in.). They look more like dirty snowflakes swirling in a cloudy ocean soup than something you can grab off the water with your hand. It’s possible to sail through the Garbage Patches and see only the small pieces and little large debris on the surface.
The amount of waste in the two Patches accumulates over time because most is not biodegradable. In the ocean, the sun breaks down plastics into tinier pieces in a process called photodegradation. The garbage is constantly being churned by wind and waves, causing it to be spread not just at the surface, but deep down through the water, sometimes to the ocean floor. The sea floor beneath the Patches probably look like acres of underwater trash dumps. Think of that the next time you enjoy a Pacific lobster at your favorite seafood restaurant.
It’s difficult to estimate the size of the Garbage Patches because the edges are constantly changing with the ocean currents. They’re formed by whirlpool-like, rotating currents called “gyres,” sucking fresh debris in like magnets. The gyres are formed where the warm waters of the South Pacific meet the cold waters of the Arctic.
Because of those ocean currents, the two Pacific Garbage Patches actually trade trash!
There are two gyres in the North Pacific Ocean. The most famous is located between Hawaii and California, far out in the middle of the ocean. It was discovered by a yacht captain named Charles Moore over 20 years ago in 1997. He was sailing from Hawaii to California after a yachting race. While crossing the eastern Gyre, his crew noticed millions of pieces of plastic surrounding his ship. The patch was later named by Seattle oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer, a known expert in tracking ocean currents.
About 80% of the trash comes from North America and Asia. The remaining 20% comes from cargo ships, fishing trawlers and offshore oil rigs that routinely dump their waste directly into the ocean. Garbage from one side of the Pacific takes only about 1 year to travel to the other side. About 80,000 tons is discarded fishing nets and traps alone. More unusual stuff is everything you can imagine: sneakers, styrofoam, harder bottle caps, and even plastic Legos.
Because of their remoteness, the two Garbage Patches are hard to study. But we definitely know their impacts. Fish and other sea life are caught, injured, and killed by lost fishing nets. They are called “ghost nets” because they continue “ghost fishing,” even after being discarded by man. Plastic debris with loops, like six pack straps, and plastic bag handles also get caught on sea life.
Fish, seabirds and whales mistakenly eat the micro-plastics, causing choking and starvation.
These indigestible items clog their stomachs, making the animals feel full, and stopping them from eating. Sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jelly fish, their favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of ruptured organs. Seals, walruses, and other marine mammals are especially at risk. They can get entangled in ghost nets and drown, unable to reach the surface to breath.
If algae and plankton are threatened, the entire food chain is screwed. Animals that eat them, like fish and turtles, will have less food. If their population decrease, there’ll be less food for their predators like tuna, dolphins, sharks, and whales. An estimated 100,000 marine animals are strangled, suffocated, or injured by plastics every year. Eventually, seafood will become rarer and as a result, more expensive for you and me.
Why should we care about something so far away? Well, humans are exposed to those microplastics from seafood, sea water, and sea salt. Scientists are exploring what this does to us humans over the long haul, but all agree it’s not good. As photodegradation breaks down plastics, they leach out harmful petrochemical pollutants and chemicals. To make matters worse, floating plastics absorb the other pollutants we dump in the oceans. These chemicals then enter the food chain and eventually us, when eat our favorite fish and seafood.
If we do nothing but shrug it off, the sizes of the Garbage Patches will continue to grow and grow.
This growth will worsen the impacts on our environment, fishing, navigation, the economy, and all our health. So what do we do about it? It may not be possible to entirely clean up the Garbage Patches. Man-made materials take a very long time to break down naturally and the plastics may never fully go away. Larger debris can be removed by man, but the micro debris is spread from the surface to the ocean floor.
Recent studies predict that unless a major response is mounted, the patches will increase exponentially and could TRIPLE by 2050. Cleaning up the debris is not that easy. Any net small enough to capture microplastics would also capture small marine life as well. Truth is, the sheer size of the Patches makes clean up almost too big to consider. The US NOAA’s Marine Debris Program estimates it would take 67 ships 1 year to clean up just 1 percent of 1 patch. It would be very difficult and expensive to remove it all.
Prevention is obviously key to stopping it at its source.
Trash enters our streams, rivers, bays and oceans in ways like poor waste management, dumping, littering, and storm water runoff. Because the patches are in international waters, far from any nation’s coastline, no countries are taking responsibility or providing funds to clean it up. Scientists agree that eliminating our dependence on disposable plastics and switching to biodegradable materials is the best way by transitioning from toxic, disposable plastics to reusable materials.
Thankfully, a few international organizations are dedicated to preventing our ocean’s Garbage Patches from growing. The Patches are now the target of a $32 million cleanup campaign. It was launched in 2014 by a young Dutch millennial, Boyan Slat, CEO of the nonprofit, Ocean Cleanup. Through investment money, his company developed a floating boom collection system dubbed the Interceptor.
But everyone, including governments, industries, and WE the people of the Earth, the simple citizens of this planet, will have to change our ways and limit out use of plastics. We caused this problem, and now we will have to fix it for the next generation.
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