The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is simply put a garbage tip that stretches from Hawaii to Japan. According to scientists the patch covers an area about twice the size of continental United States. This huge “soup” of varying kinds of debris and waste is obviously having a negative effect on the local ecosystems and species. The situation is constantly getting worse due to human interference, as the world population is ever increasing and the general public is relatively unaware of the true impact of human waste and littering. The sheer amount of waste and the fact that most of it isn’t bio degradable, means that various animals will die and in extreme cases even the extinction of species is possible. Many uneducated people believe in the myth that the garbage forms an island where it’s possible to walk on. The myth is untrue, but that’s not necessarily a good thing as in reality an “island of trash” would be easier and cheaper to clean up than numerous large patches of floating and sinking microplastics.

A boat in the midst of floating plastic and waste debris. (source)
Figure 1. A boat in the midst of floating plastic and waste debris around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (source)

The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre holds together the whole Great Pacific Garbage Patch as debris is being drawn into the gyres stable center, where it eventually gets trapped. The circular motion created by the gyre is the cause behind this phenomenon. For example: a plastic bottle thrown into the sea in California would eventually reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Initially the bottle would be transported south towards Mexico by the California current and from there it would likely get caught into the North Equatorial current which would take the bottle across the pacific as far as Japans coastlines. From there it would be carried north by the Kuroshiro and west by the North Pacific current, from which point the rolling vortexes of the waste patches would draw the bottle into the gyres center.

Figure 2. A map clearly showing the main currents, most of which mentioned in the journey of the plastic bottle. (source)
Figure 2. A map clearly showing the main currents, most of which mentioned previously in the journey of the plastic bottle. The convergence zone is the densest area in terms of garbage and plastic debris as its where everything accumulates due to the currents. (source)

Why is it not cleaned up?

It is suspected that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not only a vast area of dense microplastic and other buoyant waste, but also an underwater trash heap as scientists have discovered that about 70% of all marine debris sinks to the bottom of the oceans. Arguably the worst part about this whole situation is the fact that the majority of the trash is plastic that will eventually get broken down into tiny pieces due to the process of photodegradation. The constant sunlight breaks down plastic debris, even until they are so small they cannot be seen by the naked eye. Scientists estimate that the Garbage Patch is made up of approximately 1.9 million bits of plastic per square mile. Cleaning up the degraded plastic bits would be a nearly impossible task without harming the local wildlife even further. If a collecting net would be deployed, similar sized organisms would get caught in the net with the waste. As with many things, the biggest reason for every countries unwillingness to clean up is due to money. Since the Great Garbage Patch is so far from any countries borders, no one is willing to either clean it up or fund the cleaning process. Bearing in mind that scientists have estimated that it would take an entire year for 67 ships to clean less than 1% of the total area.

 The effect of waste and plastic on local ecosystems

The UN Environment Programme have concluded that over a million seabirds and 100 000 marine mammals die each year as a direct cause of plastic debris. Lots of different species mistake pieces of plastic and other trash as food and therefore consume them, leading to serious health hazards and death. However, humans do not remain unaffected by the waste and plastic as lots of the animals that eat the debris eventually end up as food for humans. Meaning that the toxins and chemicals in the non-biodegradable trash will affect the entire ecosystem. Due to the high salt concentration of sea water, the oily substances and other harmful chemicals in plastic get broken down and therefore can be absorbed by any organisms nearby. To put into context how bad plastic is for the environment, it takes a plastic bottle approximately 450 years to decompose from the ocean. The water cycle adds to the negative effects caused by littering and pollution. As during precipitation, rain water falls down and picks up small litter, chemicals and byproducts of waste as it travels down sewer drains, from where it will inevitably eventually end up in lakes, rivers and the oceans of course.

Figure 3. A monk seal pup trying to swim through waters covered with garbage and debris. near the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (source)
Figure 3. A monk seal pup trying to swim through waters covered with garbage and debris. near the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (source)

What can realistically be done about the situation?

  • It is clear that undertaking the task of cleaning the Great Garbage Patch would most likely be a task too expensive and challenging for one country, therefore it would require the joint effort and funding of many countries and organizations.
  • Educating and informing more of the general population so they are aware of the negative consequences of some of their daily decisions.
  • Introduce more and cheaper reusable products and/or reduce the use and manufacturing of non-biodegradable materials.

The most important point to make surely is that something must be done about the impact that waste and plastic debris have on our oceans and their important ecosystems. After all, we are sharing this planet and therefore have a responsibility to keep it healthy and to not destroy and litter any habitat that is not out own.

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