An Island of Garbage
There is a set of human-made islands in the Pacific currently fighting to become a nation. While human-made, these are pacific isles that will doubtfully have a booming tourist economy - because they are entirely made up of marine debris that has been collected together. Though not yet a nation unto themselves, these islands pose an enormous threat to the rest of the world. The waste that makes up these human-made isles is a majority plastic, posing a concern to sea life around the area.
What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most extensive collection of marine debris in the world. The area covers twice the size of the state of Texas. There are two main patches of waste in the Pacific Ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch refers to the “Eastern Garbage Patch,” which is located in the ocean between Hawaii and California. The second patch, the “Western Garbage Patch,” is located off the coast of Japan.
The North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone connects these patches. This area is where warm water from the South Pacific meets with cold water from the Arctic. It forms a “highway” type system for the trash to travel back and forth (National Geographic). The garbage continues to stay in a specific area due to a particular type of rotating ocean current, called gyres. These gyres pull and contain debris in one location.
What Makes up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
The patch consists of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, which weighs an estimated 1.8 million pounds (The Ocean Cleanup). Plastic doesn’t completely biodegrade, but instead, the material photodegrades. This means that plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, called microplastics.Microplastics are incredibly harmful to our environment. These plastic pieces can absorb toxins and cause further damage to sea life.
There are four main categories of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:
- Microplastics: These plastics represent anything below 0.5 cm. Microplastics account for 94% of the total object count of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
- Mesoplastics: This category accounts for the plastics that range from 0.5 – 5 cm. Mesoplastics represent 11% of the total weight of waste.
- Macroplastics: This category is for plastics that range from 5 – 50 cm. Macroplastics account for 22% of the total weight of debris.
- Megaplastics: These plastics represent anything above 50 cm. Megaplastics account for 46% of the total weight of the trash.
How does this affect sea life?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located in such a remote area of the ocean that it can be hard for scientists to study the first-hand impact of the debris on sea life. Here are the main ways the pollution can impact sea life that we know of right now:
- Consumption: Scientists have concluded that many animals have eaten plastics in the area by mistake. In fact, sea turtles in the area can have up to 74% of the diet made up of debris from the patch. This is incredibly harmful to marine life. Plastic fills its stomach, causing the animal to feel full, thus stopping them from ingesting nutrient-filled food.
- Ghost Fishing: This occurs when old fishing gear is left abandoned at the scene. “Ghost gear” continues to trap, hurt, and possibly kill marine life, even after it is no longer actively used. In fact, a majority of the debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, approximately 705,000 tons, is old fishing nets (National Geographic).
How does this affect humans?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and all plastic pollution in our environment have a profound impact on sea life and people. Here are the main ways plastic pollution impacts humans:
- Ingestion: When humans eat other animals, they, therefore, eat everything the animal has eaten. When a fish eats toxic microplastics, humans ingest the same when they eat that fish. In fact, a new study shows that the average human consumes anywhere from 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles a year. This number rises to 74,000 particles if microplastics inhaled is included (National Geographic).
- Economy: Yearly plastic pollution costs 13 billion dollars in damage per year to marine ecosystems. (The Ocean Cleanup). This number is likely an extreme underestimate because there is so little known about the damage caused to marine life. Although, no country will take over the mission to clean up the area because it is so far off the coast of any nation, and the task is so expensive. Private organizations lead most of the cleanup efforts.
What’s happening now?
The world went on a period of “pause” this spring, as countries implemented their own restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. There were fewer airplanes overhead and cars on the road, causing skies to be clearer. Despite this, new sources of pollutants have emerged, called “pandemic trash.” Masks, gloves, sanitizing wipes, and so many other products litter countless public areas. Although you may only see it clouding up a parking lot, it is incredibly likely to find its way into the ocean. Ultimately, becoming another macroplastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
How can you help?
Although this is not great, there are many actions, small or substantial, that you can do to help prevent personal waste that contributes to ocean pollution. One way to prevent debris from entering waterways is to reduce the personal use of plastics, especially single-use plastics. This list includes, but is not limited to, plastic straws, cups, and cutlery. If you go out to eat, opt to bring your own reusable items, rather than single-use plastics that the establishment provides. Every action matters.
Submitted by: Haley A.