Why you need to know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Have you heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Or any other oceanic garbage patches, for that matter? According to Jennifer Gabrys’ Monitoring and Remediating a Garbage Patch, there’s a number of substantial convergences of plastic debris in our oceans, referred to as “garbage patches”. The Great Pacific Garbage patch is said to be up to three times the size of Texas. Commonly referred to by scientists as the Eastern Pacific Trash Vortex, it is located in a stretch of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California.
Garbage patches are able to form in still waters caused by ocean gyre, a system of circular ocean currents created by global wind patterns and Earth’s rotation. Ocean gyre make for the perfect home to large reservoirs of flotsam.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was first discovered in 1997 by oceanographer, Charles Moore. On that fateful day, Moore, travelling through the Pacific after a Transpacific Yacht Race, chose a slightly different route, leading to its accidental discovery. Since then he has since dedicated much of his time and efforts to raising awareness of the marine pollution issues we face as a global society, noting that an ocean free of plastic waste is of utmost importance for the survival of marine species.
Before you search Google Earth expecting to see a garbage patch of floating plastic, it’s worth explaining that the term “garbage patch” is more a metaphor, similar to the idea of a “hole in the ozone layer”. American oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer created the phrase “garbage patch” as a way to describe the tendency for flotsam to collect in sub-orbiting gyres. It’s a way to describe the sheer magnitude of impact that plastic debris has on oceans globally.
The Great Pacific Garbage patch is said to be up to three times the size of Texas.
According to Charles Moore, the debris ranges from fishing nets and aquaculture infrastructure to bottles, caps, toothbrushes and various types of plastic containers. There are considerable quantities of these plastics in the converging oceanic areas, in varying stages of decomposition. Much of the plastics have become microplastics that have been likened to a soup, smog and confetti in the ocean. This is why you can’t typically see the garbage patch from Google Earth: the broken-down debris sits mostly underneath the surface of the ocean. Nevertheless the problem is there and is impacting on the natural environment. Jennifer Gabrys notes that plastic in these waters has even filtered through organisms that ingest the particles.
Subsequently, an ocean observation project was setup to study the drift in plastics and other debris in the ocean. Dubbed the Global Drifter Program, it has enabled scientists and researchers to better understand the true impact of oceanic debris (among other things). The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only area of plastic debris convergence in the world. In the journal paper Origin, Dynamics and Evolution of Ocean Garbage Patches from Observed Surface Drifters, Erik van Sebille, Matthew H England and Gary Froyland note there are six major garbage patches: one in each of the five subtropical basins and an additional patch in the Barents Sea. Their study also suggests that debris originating outside the North Atlantic will make its way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Don’t use takeaway coffee cups. Take the time enjoy a drink at the cafe or invest in a keep cup.
As inert, durable and easy-to-mould materials, plastics have been increasingly used around the world. According to River Plastic Emissions to the World’s Oceans, it’s estimated that global production of plastic has exceeded 300 million tonnes per year since 2014. It also estimates that between 1.15 and 2.41 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the ocean from river systems each year. Furthermore, Jennifer Gabrys notes that 68 per cent of debris found in the ocean and across the seas is made up of plastics that have found their way to garbage patches such as the Great Pacific Garbage patch via sources such as waste-water, landfills and plastic manufacturing.
It comes as no surprise that much of the problem lies with human consumption. We are producing more and more plastic year on year to help make life that little more convenient, whether it be purchasing bottled water on a hot day during a road trip, or using a plastic bag because you forgot a reusable bag; or plastic takeaway containers, not to forget toothbrushes, hair brushes, makeup brushes, makeup and other consumables. Plastic packaging is embedded in convenience culture and so our oceans are suffering. Charles Moore cites plastic bottles and their caps as a major problem in our oceans. They are a threat to all marine life, from the base of the food chain right up to predator species.
Garbage patches and marine life
Animals that live in the ocean, from tiny zooplankton to large whales, are known to consume flotsam. According to research undertaken by Science Advances, one reason related to consumption is the odour of debris — it smells like food. How does decomposing plastic smell like food? Floating plastic, in particular, is a breeding ground for algae. As algae grows it starts to release a dimethyl sulfide (DMS) smell that attracts animals searching for food.
The study shows that animals hunting for food by smell rather than sight are most at risk of eating plastic. Over 200 species of fish, marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds have been found to consume plastic at sea. Seabirds are particularly at risk with the Science Advances projection model finding that more that 99 per cent of all seabird species will have eaten/ingested plastic by 2050. Seabirds are attracted to eating plastic as they scour the ocean surface for krill.
Once an animal consumes plastic, it enters the food chain, which has ongoing ramifications. A 1999 study by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation identified that waterborne hydrophobic pollutants collect and magnify on the surface of plastic debris, which means plastic becomes more poisonous in the ocean than on land. The research showed that some plastics disrupt the endocrine system and others can suppress the immune system or decrease reproductive rates.
... there are six major garbage patches: one in each of the five subtropical basins and an additional patch in the Barents Sea.
If you Google “albatros feeding on plastic”, you will find an abundance of global news articles that address the distressing and growing issue, and, more disturbingly, hundreds of images showcasing the contents of dead seabirds’ stomachs. You guessed it: they are full of plastic debris. The types of plastic found inside these birds include bags, bottle caps, fibres from clothing and microplastics.
According to National Geographic, scientists have been tracking plastic consumption by seabirds for decades. During the 1960s less than 5 per cent of seabirds had plastic in their stomachs. In the 1980s this increased to 80 per cent. As mentioned, this is expected to grow to 99 per cent by 2050 if we don’t do anything about it. It’s a reality check on the direct impact that plastic consumption has on animals.
On top of consumption of plastic, many marine animals are being killed by entanglement in plastic. The United Nations Environment Program estimated that 100,000 marine mammals and turtles are killed this way each year, the main culprits being discarded nets and fishing lines made out of synthetic materials.
Cleaning up the ocean
Scientists have identified that around 80 per cent of marine plastic is from land. So what can be done to stop plastic from the landing in the ocean? And what can be done to remove it? According to Christine Evans-Pughe in All At Sea: Cleaning Up The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, most ocean-cleaning initiatives look at solutions to stop plastic litter making its way into the ocean from land — often referred to as Turning off the Taps — with packaging playing a big role. Without initiatives like Turning off the Taps, it’s estimated that the amount of plastic in the sea will overtake the estimated global fish population by the year 2050. The report shows that the USA, Europe and Asia jointly produce 85 per cent of plastic, with Asia being responsible for 80 per cent of what lands in the world’s oceans and seas.
Techniques have been developed to remove plastic from rivers by specialised beach-cleaning machines. However, research into how best to clean the existing plastic garbage patches in the ocean is still in its infancy. Founded by then 19-year-old Boyan Slat, the organisation known as The Ocean Cleanup is looking to lead the way in this huge task. With the technology the organisation has developed, they aim to clean up 50 per cent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years. The Ocean Cleanup initiative was launched after extensive research concluded with a feasibility report showcasing a technically and financially viable solution. It provides hope to fix the damage already done.
What can you do about it?
While this global problem seems overwhelming, there is much we can do as individuals and communities to stop the growth of oceanic garbage patches. Especially considering the debris found in the ocean and stomachs of deceased marine animals includes bottle caps, cotton bud shafts, toothbrushes and plastic shopping bags. These are all items of common consumption. Understanding the environmental effects of plastic waste, along with realising that when you throw something away there is a chance that “away” ends up being the ocean, provides a chance to make smarter purchasing decisions to reduce plastic consumption and improve plastic management post-use.
Here are 10 simple, actionable changes you can make today to reduce plastic intake:
- Don’t buy bottled water. If you have to buy a drink from a convenience store, choose one in glass.
- Don’t use takeaway coffee cups. Take the time enjoy a drink at the cafe or invest in a keep cup.
- Buy groceries from bulk food stores where possible to reduce plastic; this can also save you money.
- Stop using plastic straws and crockery and let restaurant staff know you don’t wish to use these plastic items.
- Leave a reusable produce bag in your car or handbag. A single plastic bag can take up to 1000 years to degrade.
- Buy household goods like laundry detergent in boxes instead of plastic containers.
- Make your own cleaning products.
- Reuse containers.
- Use a razor with replaceable blades instead of disposable razors.
- Find a toothbrush that isn’t made out of plastic.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a confronting reminder of the direct impact consumption has on the environment. The plastics that make up so much of life’s conveniences end up collecting and decomposing in oceans and seas, killing and harming marine life. Scientists have shown that if nothing is done to curb plastic consumption and waste practices there is a risk that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. They have also shown we can create change and improve waterways, starting with ocean cleanups and mindful consumption. Now is the time to make small but significant changes to make a difference.
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